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A Mother Finds Dad's Shoes Too Big to Fill


My daughter--the sensitive middle one--returned home from a weekend fishing trip recently with a friend and her father, full of tales of adventure and delight. And one simple request:

I want a dad.

Marry somebody, she said, with the direct simplicity of an 8-year-old. Somebody who likes kids, who's nice and wants to spend time with us.

Yeah, her 6-year-old sister chimed in, ticking off a list of suitable stepfathers. There's Coach Teddy, their tall, handsome P.E. teacher, who's probably young enough to be my son. Or David, a family friend who visits occasionally from San Francisco--where he lives with his partner, Ben. Or Uncle Ricky! Her face brightened . . . then dropped: "No, I don't guess you could marry Uncle Ricky."

Uncle Ricky is my brother. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The conversation pierced my heart like an arrow. I thought we'd built a nice life, a complete life, my girls and I, in the years since their father died. I thought I'd stepped ably into both his Florsheims and his Nikes, filling the roles he'd played in their lives.

I earn a good enough living to provide them with luxuries like private school and summer camp. I've taught them to skate and ride bikes, to love hiking and camping. I learned to play basketball so I could coach my oldest daughter's team and took up running to help the girls train for track.

I climb onto the roof every year to hang Christmas lights, haul heavy trash cans to the curb on Sunday nights, take a chain saw to our overgrown trees each spring. Just like their father did.

Why, just last weekend I repaired the rickety gate outside our house and hung shelves in my daughters' rooms.

So who needs a dad, right?


What was I thinking, that I could make them forget he isn't around?

For 3 1/2 years, my three girls have been growing up without a father.

He's not deadbeat or absentee. He didn't run out or move away. He simply died. Dropped dead without warning one week before Christmas, while he was visiting a friend and we were home baking gingerbread men.

I remember taking the call from a policeman that night and struggling to make sense of his emergency room report as two small girls tugged on my sweatshirt, trying to drag me back into the kitchen.

I plopped a video in the VCR to quiet them down, then leaned against a wall to steady myself. The thoughts that flooded my mind seem so strange now--so eminently practical as to be bizarre: "Why didn't we get that mortgage insurance when we had a chance? Who'll help me put together the kids' toys on Christmas Eve? How will I ever find time to finish my shopping and plan a funeral?"

So why was I surprised at the practical nature of their response when I broke the news to my daughters a few minutes later?

The little ones--at the time just 3 and 5--looked at each other, then back at me, wide-eyed and bewildered. "You mean we don't have a daddy anymore? But we just made him cookies. . . ."

Their older sister dissolved in tears of disbelief, gasping through heaving sobs: "He can't be dead. That means I'll be the only one in my class without a father."

She sensed then what it's taken me much longer to realize: that they have been forever shortchanged, their childhoods diminished by the loss of something that, for all my posturing, I can never replace.


The generic advice for single mothers is simple: Find a father substitute; make sure there are positive male role models in your children's lives.

But my own father died eight years ago, and my only brother lives 3,000 miles away. My late husband has four brothers in Ohio, but we've seen them only once since he died. And my few male friends are mostly busy tending to their own wives and children.

In truth, I haven't looked hard to find a replacement dad. Between working full time and tending three kids, it's tough enough finding prospects to date, much less figuring out whether they're stepfather material.

In the early months after my husband died, people eagerly offered to help ease our loss. My neighbor taught one daughter to hit a baseball. Her friend's father took her to our Girl Scout father-daughter dance.

But as time passed, our needs faded from others' view. We'd have to fend for ourselves.

My daughters have learned to handle the pointed questions, the inevitable curiosity of children and teachers who do not know. "My father died," they each now say, eyes clear, voices steady. It takes me back to my mother's death, when my 9-year-old brother spent months telling callers, "She's not here right now," with a hitch in his voice.

But every now and then, I see my children's armor crack.

I watch as my oldest daughter, now 11, peers out the window at a friend next door, who is heading off with her dad to an Indian Princess outing. It's a weekend camping trip, just fathers and daughters. And when my daughter turns away, I see the tears in her eyes.


The little one worries that she's forgetting her dad. "Sometimes, Mommy, I can't remember what he looks like," she says, holding his photo and staring into the eyes of a smiling man cradling the baby she used to be.

She can only remember creeping downstairs at night, as I lay with her sisters reading bedtime stories. Daddy would be there on the couch, watching basketball on TV, and he'd feed her bits of crackers and cheese while she played at his feet. And I'd find them later, both sound asleep, his arms around her, her head against his chest.

For her and her sisters, the image of Daddy is largely one assembled from bits and pieces of fading memories.

Me, I'm just Mommy, struggling every day to measure up to a dad of epic proportions. And praying every night that I don't fall too short.

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