Parenting is built on the idea that you raise your children to be able to one day move on without you, remembering the good and discarding the bad.
I’m thinking about this because a very good friend of mine recently died, leaving behind two wonderful daughters, both under the age of 5 — too young to have genuine memories of their mother. As a parent, one of my greatest fears was that I would die and simply be erased from my daughters’ lives.
My friend’s husband, a sensitive, caring, lovely human being will, I’m sure, do all the right things in raising these girls and honoring his departed wife. There will be pictures of her and the stories of her time with them will be told over and over. They will know their mother’s family, their maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. All this is great, and important and will give them an image, a connection to their mother. But not memory.
My own children, 13 and 16-years-old, are old enough that if I kicked the bucket tomorrow they would have recollections etched into their synapses of me, my bald head, and, hopefully, our doing fun things together. I’ve been fortunate to spend enough time with them to inspire a range of reminiscence, good and bad — and that provides a deep sense of relief. Perhaps it is my Jewish upbringing, teaching that it is through the memory of the living that the lives of the dead are carried on and given meaning post-departure.
Another friend lost her husband before either of their boys had reached elementary school. She embraced the spirit of her late-spouse by making sure her children experience the things their father would have done with them, such as boating and hunting. This is another way to substitute for those memories that weren’t, paying homage to a deceased partner by fulfilling their dreams for the kids, the joys and passions they would have brought to their children’s lives.
For my girls, I imagine them venerating my life by getting together at a Mets-Cubs game each summer and hoisting a cold one in my memory (of course, they’ll be of drinking age by then). But they’ve crossed that age when they’re stuck with our history together, no matter how much they’d like to forget.
What if one of them suffered brain damage in an accident or through illness? What if all the things we’ve shared were wiped from her gray matter with some horrible, divine eraser? It’s almost the same situation, I would disappear as her father but, while I walk this earth, I would still have the opportunity to build new memories, recreate myself in her mind and be her parent.
I hope to have many more years with my girls, many more experiences together, the cherished as well as those I’d rather sweep under the proverbial rug. That they remember me, share stories with their future partners and children, feels so important because it gives meaning to our relationship, our time together, my being their dad. It is only through my daughters’ memories of me that I will get to and stay with them.