The problem about dying when your son is a teen is that they want to grow up to be just like you and you aren’t there to explain your foibles and how you wish you could re-write some of the endings to the stories your friends tell.
Joe was a great dad. He coached, he encouraged, he showed up and he played endless rounds of pizza man. Big hugs and I love you’s were shared without reservation. Most important, he was responsible. I never worried for one minute when Joe took Cole on camping trips, sledding, or skiing, because while I knew he might do things differently than I would, he would never put Cole at risk or act carelessly.
I knew very early on that Joe loved Cole as much as I did, and I probably miss this part of our relationship most of all.
When Joe was parenting with me, we had very few disagreements around Cole. We never strived for consistency. Whichever parent was in charge did it their way. Why parents insisted on being on the same page about parenting issues has always baffled me. Especially about things like movies, bedtimes, food and outer wear. I always felt like Cole got the best and the worst of two very different parenting styles. Joe was much quicker than me to pick Cole up when he fell, and to wake up at night when he cried. I recognized the importance of the happy meal toy, and the frustration of not being able to ride a two-wheeler as quickly as you’d thought you could.
Then the bottom dropped out of our world. Joe died and left Cole with one parent. Cole has very few complaints about me, other than he wishes I would cook a little more often, but it is obvious at every turn that while he loves me as much as I love him, he wants to be like his dad.
This is the last thing Joe would want, and if he had the opportunity, I’m sure he would tell this to Cole over and over again. Joe struggled with anger, focus and completion. Sometimes he drank too much because life, for him, was very painful on many levels. If Joe were going through the teen years with Cole, he would naturally fall from grace. Joe would be quick to point out his own mistakes, despite teen eye-rolling.
I watch Cole behind the wheel of the car. Despite very little experience behind the wheel, Cole is a confident and good driver, and yet he drives too fast with an edge and an impatience that is well beyond his years. He drives like his dad. Joe never got tickets and was never in an accident, but the fierceness he displayed behind the wheel made many a passenger shudder. Except his son. Who watched. And wants to drive just like him.
Cole has a fascination for adult beverages. He is allowed wine at family gatherings, and a sip here and there of this and that. I often joke that Joe married me because I did not drink and he would always have a designated driver handy. Drinking in Joe’s family and mine has always been a part of family occasions. Nobody ever falls over drunk, and fights are rare. Drinking is social and fun. Cole cannot wait to be old enough to join the fun. Joe also drank to numb the pain of life on Friday and Saturday nights, and Cole remembers his dad as being more fun on those nights. Carefree. Cole wants to be just like him. Except that Joe was not carefree after Cole went to bed. He was fighting back against some very angry demons.
Cole often hears funny stories about his dad; how good he was at talking himself out of trouble, using good manners and respect to shield the truth, and his expertise at hacking the system. Unfortunately, Joe is not here to share the often-felt angst and personal consequence that went along with those stories.
It is very hard to tarnish the image of a dearly departed dad. The more you try, the more you fail. And to tell the truth, my heart is not into diminishing Joe in Cole’s eyes.
It might be painful to fail in front of our kids, to make mistakes, fix them and ask for a do-over; to share, despite eye-rolling, where different choices have lead you, and some of your regrets over not choosing differently.
However, I suspect Joe wishes that he had that opportunity.
Make no mistake, your kids are watching you, listening to you, and more than likely, wanting to be just like you until long after death do you part.