Jen is an estate planning attorney, which means she deals with end-of-life planning, and preparing a family for the death of one spouse, on a daily basis. True family planning is more than just wills, trusts, and power of attorney CYA paperwork, as it begins well before “I Do” and lasts through kids, houses, schools, and the events of a family growing up. There are hundreds of small choices for every major event, decisions two parents should make together about how to handle life and child-rearing and all of the other items in chapters 5-18 of the mythical "Parenting 101: How to Raise Your Children Properly" guidebook. Most of them we haven’t even thought to consider yet.
We have been so positive, believing my treatments will work, that we have not had many conversations about the "what-ifs" like, “What Daddy would say, if Daddy were still alive?” Even the most upbeat person in my situation knows the reality; if I live five more years, it would be a borderline medical and statistical anomaly/miracle. It DOES happen, and as we are seeing with recent treatments, survival is happening more frequently and more often. Seven full years, though, would certainly be an outlier on the curve – and that reality would mean a fourth and second-grader are now left in the caring hands of a single mother.
There have been a few different life circumstances that prompted a little more deep thought into the "I'm not going to live forever" mindset, and it gave Jen and I a lot of discussion material on our recent travels. It actually started with a question on flying and seeing my family in New Jersey... which prompted a "spirited debate" on the appropriate age a minor can travel unaccompanied on an airplane. (For the record, the consensus on Facebook was way older than I would consider letting one of the kids travel unaccompanied. Apparently, I am not a very concerned parent.)
The topic that generated the most amount of discomfort was what happens with Mommy and romance after the “potentially inevitable” occurs. Talk about a downer conversation on a long drive. It was partially awkward because I won't actually be here, with no "say" whatsoever, if/when that scenario evolves. It is just not, in any way, fun to think about; Jen even commented later that I was so matter of fact about it, she was a little worried.
It's certainly not due to a lack of emotion - any husband (or wife) would, I am sure, have pretty strong feelings thinking about their life partner having someone else's companionship. Being detached from the idea, at least during the conversation, is probably the only rational way to make it through that talk. Enter in just a bit of emotion, and the message of “what I want our children to learn” gets lost way too easily. I know Jen is young, attractive, fun, successful, and has a couple of adorable kids; despite her insistence on having no interest if this were to pass, there’s little chance of her being ignored in the dating front.
If something were to happen to me, I hope she finds happiness; if that’s with someone who is a good person and a good father figure to our children, then that is the plan God had for this family. I would much rather our kids be raised with love from a step-parent and grow up in a family, then have a single parent struggle to play the dual role of Mommy and Daddy. When Josie was born, someone sent me the saying, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” I don’t see a clause in there making step-fathers ineligible.
This isn’t about a spouse moving on, though - I'm not THAT shallow. It is those hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions that parents should be making together to shape the lives of their children and family. When should we give the kids cell phones? Who checks the homework every night? How do we want to monitor "screen time?" How do we protect their innocence, without being too sheltering? Teaching them everything - how to make pasta, how to hit a baseball, where the states are on a map, how to body surf, what a stick-shift is, how to ride a bike... I could go on for paragraphs. Right after I was diagnosed, one of our friends was talking about giving his tween girls an allowance. Jen started to cry; it dawned on her in that moment that chances were pretty high I wouldn’t be around for that conversation.
If you are up for a good weep, see if you can find "My Life", a Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman film about a terminally ill father-to-be who takes a video camera and "teaches" his unborn child as many of these life lessons as he can. Be forewarned, it's a tear-jerker. After some waterworks when watching it in college, my girlfriend said "Wow, you really DO have a heart..." (I suppose the 19-year-old football-playing, fraternity-living, college lifestyle T.J. was not as emotionally mature as Patient #1.) I’ve thought a lot about that movie in the last two years, although I haven’t brought myself to watch it again. Maybe because I know how the movie ends, and that fate is something I keep as far removed as possible (sorry for the spoiler).
I get it – no one wants to spend time dwelling on this stuff, especially when there is (hopefully) plenty of runway left. Conversely, if there weren’t, why spend precious time on such a morbid topic? I suppose as I have gone through these emotional ups and downs, my paternal responsibility as guider and educator has leapt to the front. It’s the most important job I will ever have, and I take it much more seriously now. I’m more willing to spend the extra time showing the children the right way and talking to them, perhaps because I know that every lesson has a little more meaning to it than the average father-child interaction.
The truth is, I will never stop being a teacher to my kids, just as our parents are still teaching Jen and I how to be good parents and spouses. Would my kids get by without Daddy to teach them? Well, yea... but I don't WANT my kids to learn too many life lessons the hard way. Stated another way, part of my responsibility as a parent is helping them up when they fall, picking up the pieces after the first heartbreak, encouraging resilience and determination after the disappointments life brings. Those are the times when character is built, strength gained, resolve forged. Having both parents to guide, to teach, to help navigate life’s waters – that is what the conversations with Jen were really about. It’s much better for the teacher to leave plans, just in case the unlikely event of a substitute teacher is necessary, then to leave it to chance that the right lessons are taught.
T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »