I made a calendar with eight slots, one for each day his dad would be gone. I bought a package of stickers and explained to my two-year-old son that he could place a sticker on “Friday” because today was Friday. Then tomorrow, another sticker. One for each day: we counted the spaces together. I pasted a photo of my husband in the last space and my son touched it. “Hi, Papa!” he said. His marker-stained fingers bent the sticker sheet, trying to unpeel a hedgehog wearing an inexplicable red sweater. I helped.
On the third day, I had to revise my “one sticker a day” plan. My son woke in the morning sobbing for his father, and would be consoled only when I suggested placing a sticker on the calendar. By the end of the day, four stickers would overlap in the “Sunday” slot. At one point, my son hesitated, his hand hovering one space to the right. “No,” I said, trying to be kind but realistic. “That’s for Monday. It’s not Monday yet. You can put it here.” I gently moved his hand back to Sunday.
My son wore a button-down shirt that morning. A friend was taking him to church and I would have an hour to spend alone with my two-month-old daughter; or, if she slept, perhaps I would actually clean the dishes or sweep the floor. We had moved overseas the year before, and adjusting to life without my extended family nearby often felt messy, unmanageable. Now, with my husband gone, I found myself acting out ridiculous caricatures of motherhood, pushing my son’s stroller with one hand and hefting a full grocery bag with the other as our German Shepherd strained against his leash and my daughter arched her back in the baby carrier.
I took one of my son’s favorite granola bars out of the cupboard and placed it in his shirt pocket. “A special snack for when you get to church,” I said. He patted the granola bar. “Shirt pocket,” he said. “Shirt pocket like papa.” Of course, I realized–every morning before he left for work my husband buttoned up a dress shirt; they all had pockets. He happened to call us just before church, and my son reached for the phone. “Aaron have shirt pocket,” he kept saying. “Shirt pocket.”
I was amazed that he had recalled such an ordinary but significant detail, something he certainly could not have verbalized even three months before. Later that day, I found him balancing precariously on the arm of the rocking chair in his bedroom, reaching for the calendar, which I’d taped on a slanted wall at the back of the room. He turned to look at me, his eyes fearful, legs wobbling.
In that moment, I felt suddenly that the calendar had been a terrible idea. My son had memories now, desires he could articulate and act upon. I had created a simplistic countdown with my husband’s face at the end, presenting it as fact, as though I could be certain he would come back to us. Now I wondered. It was just a fall hunting trip, but what if his plane crashed? What if a moose gored him or a bear ate him alive? I had been a chronic worrier even before my son was born, but now the stakes seemed higher. My own potential for loss–the raw missing, the empty gape forever–paled as I considered my child, whose innocence made the threat of loss even crueler.
I knew better than to think I could protect Aaron from unjust sorrow. My mother’s parents both died young, of cancer, within six months of each other. I grew up hearing stories about them, people who should have been in my life but weren’t. Their absence had shape, took up actual space. Nothing about it had been fair or predictable; my grandfather was a cancer surgeon, my grandmother a nurse. They left four children behind.
Every time my son placed a sticker on a space, we recited what was left: “Today is Wednesday, tomorrow is Thursday, and on Friday, we see Papa!” Each time, it felt as though we were tempting fate. My son had developed his own version: “Wednesday, Monday, Saturday, Friday see Papa!” I heard him saying it to himself sometimes as he played. Other times, especially when I held him and his sister in bed, stroking their heads, too tired to get up, he would say what my husband had taught him the month before: “We’re family; we love each other. Mama, Papa, Aaron, Joanie.” At night, he liked to kiss his father’s picture.
If my husband never came home, how would I explain it? How could my son grasp it, the calendar’s promise broken, all the spaces filled with stickers but no father? He would know only that I had lied. When I made the calendar, I hoped it would provide a healthy way for my son to cope with his father’s relatively brief absence. But I had based it on foolish premises, the idea that what we loved was somehow owed to us, the certainty that a day would bring only what we expected and wanted. It was the world I wished for my two-year-old, not the real one. I recalled that when my paternal grandfather died unexpectedly, I felt most unnerved by objects that continued existing despite their sudden pointlessness: a ticking watch, empty boots stacked against a barn wall. If my husband died, I contemplated morbidly, we would be left with shirt pockets and that stupid calendar.
But instead, my husband, safe and whole, walked through our door at the end of the week. Even as he rushed in for a hug, my son started crying, as though he had already begun to realize how much it is possible to lose.