Dear Dads on the Sidelines: My Fatherless Son Needs You

After my husband passed away, my kids needed me to be strong. But they also needed a community of men.

Flickr / MSC U15 Green

Moving to machine-pitch had been difficult for my seven-year-old son, and it had taken a couple of painful practices and games to figure out how to hit a ball that came so fast. But in the second Little League game of the season, he hit the ball for the first time. I watched his little face – first stunned and then excited about the prospect of finally running to first base. He paused for a second, and I heard dozens of voices around me shout his name.  “Run!” the chorus of supportive voices in the stands yelled. “You can do it!” And he did.

Everyone was there. Everyone except his dad.

I know my husband Shawn thought about what it would mean to miss all these baseball games. I know he worried about what would happen to our boys as they grew up without him. In fact, just a few hours after receiving a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis, he told me that he thought things would be okay, because our older son’s godfather Josh would be really involved in both boys’ lives. I hadn’t even fully absorbed the full scale of the diagnosis and Shawn was already planning their lives without him.

As a child, my son moves through the world with his grief in a different way than I do. Every moment is not one that causes him pain, one that reminds him of another time.  Every moment is merely that moment. 

But he knew and those words stuck with me. A few days later, I told Josh about our conversation, and he hugged me with tears in his eyes. We both knew what my husband was facing. We both thought we knew what I was facing.

Actually, neither of us really knew what my life would be like without my husband. What would it mean to be a single parent?  More specifically, what would it mean to be a single mom to two fatherless boys?

I found out slowly. At first, all three of my kids needed the same thing — lots of time sitting on my lap, reading books, and knowing that they were loved. They needed to be able to come into my bed at night and they needed to hear stories about their dad. My therapist reminded me that what my kids needed was to feel safe and to feel loved.

For months, I did just that. Then somehow the longest winter of my life ended, and spring began. This meant baseball, specifically Little League for my older boy, who was now in first grade. My husband had always dealt with baseball. I never went to a game or a practice until he was too sick to do it for us.

I am not a “sports mom.”  That was not my job, dammit.

You might think that cheering at my son’s baseball game is just a little thing, and maybe it is.  But it’s all part of how I’m surviving my new reality

But Josh had signed up my older son for baseball, so baseball it was. He called me up a few weeks beforehand and offered to take him out for “batting practice” at the local park. Watching him throw the ball with my boy that afternoon put a lump in my throat as I thought about all the times I’d seen my husband do the same thing.  But my son didn’t feel the same way I did.  As a child, he moves through the world with his grief in a different way than I do.  Every moment is not one that causes him pain, one that reminds him of another time.  Every moment is merely that moment.  And, as he told me afterward, hitting practice balls with his godfather was a lot of fun.

Baseball games and practices this season have involved a lot of coordination. I can’t make it to every game, and I certainly can’t make it to every practice. I’m trying to work full time and raise two other kids and somehow do everything else around the house. Thankfully, my oldest son is an independent kid who has happily tagged along with different families many times, and has not minded that I missed yet another special moment of first-grade-baseball-awesomeness. And it’s more than just the rides: countless parents have made sure my son has the right gear, and that he shows up at the right place each week.

My community has helped me enormously this year. They brought me meals for months and picked up my kids at school and helped me organize mountains of paperwork.  But if I’m honest, most of the help I’ve accepted has been from other moms.

Baseball is different. Yes, plenty of moms show up. But it’s the dads that do much of the pre-practice warm-up and the after-game huddles. It’s the dads who do most of the driving and the dads who coach the teams.  So, for baseball, I look to the dads.

And when I do, I see it all. I see the dad throwing the ball with his son before the game.  I see him stop what he was doing to call over my son and start throwing the ball with him, too. I hear the dad that called out my son’s name when he was up to bat. I watch the dad talk to my son after he struck out, reminding him that it was a minor setback.  I hear the dad who clapped his hands extra hard and extra long when my son got a hit.  I see the dad who made sure that my boy got all the way into the huddle before anyone started talking or chanting.

You might think that cheering at my son’s baseball game is just a little thing, and maybe it is.  But it’s all part of how I’m surviving my new reality.  How I’m learning to raise boys without someone next to me showing the way. Thank God I have men who are close to me and can help take the boys to batting practice on the weekend and make sure they go out fishing when we’re camping.

But I also am so grateful to all of the fathers who stand on the sidelines of the baseball game and cheer just a bit harder than usual when my son comes up to bat, the dads that mess up his hair as they congratulate him after the game.

But I also am so grateful to all of the fathers who stand on the sidelines of the baseball game and cheer just a bit harder than usual when my son comes up to bat, the dads that mess up his hair as they congratulate him after the game. I am so lucky that they are there, a community of men, showing my son some of the things that I don’t know how to show him.

Right after Shawn died, I had so many people ask me what they could do to help my family. People wanted to deliver food and shovel snow and do all sorts of other helpful things. I appreciated what they did. But as I told one dad who asked, “What I really need is for you to come to my son’s high school baseball games and cheer from the stands.”

I’ll need them forever.

I need my husband’s best friends to teach the boys how to shave and coach them through what to do on a date. But my sons will also need the wider community to embrace them as they grow into men.  You — all of you — can show them that. You can show them how to support a teammate with encouraging words, how to throw a ball without fear, and how to treat the girls that surround them as equals. Of course you can, and should, do this for all of the children in the community. But my boys, and many like them, will be watching just a little closer. And if they reach out, I hope you will follow their lead and reach right back.

By day Marjorie Brimley is a high school teacher and mother of three. She spends her nights replaying the crazy encounters that go along with being a recent widow and blogging about them at DCwidow.com.  You can also find her on Facebook at facebook.com/dcwidowblog/ and Twitter @dcwidowblog