The words were innocent enough, not spoken in judgment or in pain, or even in any kind of bitterness. They were spoken the way any words of accepted fact are spoken, with an easy indifference, with a surety that no one would question the truth behind the meaning of his words.
“Of course they’re better at basketball than you. They have a mom and a dad.”
My eight-year-old son was attempting to be kind to his older sister who’d placed third in a basketball shoot-out competition during the first practice of the season. He was trying to help her understand why hours of practice during the off-season—the many, many solo afternoons on the basketball court perfecting her shooting and dribbling and ball handling—had not meant she was now the best on the court. He wanted her to understand that she shouldn’t be upset about not winning because she was just at a disadvantage: she only had a mom.
At their father’s funeral—after the prepared eulogies were read by their grandfather, their aunts, by me and the rabbi who just ten years earlier had bound my husband to me in blissful matrimony—my children were given the chance to speak.
My son declined, but my daughter, seven at the time, walked to the podium, raised her gaze to the 600 people, who’d arrived to pay their respects to a man who’d been taken too soon and too viciously, and spoke her goodbye in the form of another innocent truth: “My daddy liked to play basketball with me.” Then she stepped into my arms and the three of us—my daughter, my son, and I—walked behind the coffin of the man who was supposed to be my co-parent and my children’s safe space for the rest of their lives, but was now a collection of memories and moments that would never be.
She’s been basketball obsessed since the funeral, desperately trying to get better, to be as good as her father had been in her memories. At the first practice of this season, she placed third, an improvement over last season, but she’d wanted better. In her world, basketball wasn’t simply a sport, it was a way to honor a memory, and third wasn’t first.
I didn’t see my daughter’s face after my son’s attempt at comforting words in the car on the way home from practice; I don’t know if her eyes blurred with tears or her chin fell to her chest, heavy with the weight of childhood grief that is sometimes heavier than a little girl can bear. But I heard the silence that descended across the backseat. The silence that is maybe the only sound powerful enough to quiet the single mom chatter in my brain, that can scatter all the worries about dinner and homework and bills and unfinished to-dos as if they were nothing but feathers caught up in a gust of wind.
Nearly two years after that funeral, two years of solo parenting two grieving children who will sometimes ask me just as I’m about to close the door to their bedroom for the night, “Why was it our dad that died?,” the right words in those densely silent moments haven’t become obvious. The comforting thing to say is still locked away in a book about grief and childhood that I haven’t read, because my grief has stolen my ability to read anything for more than a few minutes. So I turned to the words I always turn to, the default words that have defined my relationship with my children since I had to tell them that daddy was not going to get better.
I told them the truth. Yes, they were at a disadvantage. I explained that yes, with two parents, one parent could be making dinner and the other practicing jump shots. I confirmed that yes, with two parents, one parent could be calling the plumber about the broken garbage disposal while the other helped study for that math test, and then there’d be time for the whole family to play a game of basketball. I admitted that our family foundation was fractured irreparably.
And then I told my daughter I was proud of all the hard work she’d put in during the off-season; third place, from a child who’d barely managed to handle the ball the previous season, was something to celebrate.
The topic shifted to something else, both kids satisfied—my son by his accuracy and my daughter by her improvement.
But my words, the truth I’d shared, remained in my thoughts, a sharp edged puzzle piece that wouldn’t fit into the landscape of my day. This time, the truth wasn’t the right answer. Or at least, not the full answer.
After the homework had been finished and dinner prepared and eaten and cleared, after the bedtime routines and the books and the last minute questions, as I sat for the first time all day and attempted to quiet my mind for just a few moments, I realized why my words didn’t lay smoothly.
Yes, my children are at a disadvantage because they don’t have a father, but what I’d wish I’d told them was that everyone, every child on that court, even the ones with two parents, the ones who placed first and second in the shootout competition, has an invisible struggle that might feel like a disadvantage, either on or off the court. I wish that I’d told them that pressing forward, putting in the extra effort and sweat and hope, despite a disadvantage, is an unquestionable kind of strength that some adults fail to find. I wish that I’d said yes, our family foundation is fractured in an irreparable way, but sometimes the strongest towers are built over cracks that have been reinforced and bricks that have been laid, not to hide the fracture, but to support it.
I wish I’d given a better truth.
But like millions of other mothers, I’m mothering at a disadvantage, I’m building a tower over a foundation with cracks. And maybe what matters most is that we’re all building, continuing to lay bricks.
Maybe what matters most is that with each new brick, we’re learning how to build something that might one day, hopefully, be unbreakable.