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‘Seems we’ve always lived this way’

Sun., June 16, 2013

Nearly seven years after losing his wife to heart failure, Gary Crooks reflects on how the lines have blurred between the traditional roles of Dad, Mom and Child

‘They must’ve moved the Gatorade,” says my son at Costco, which is his way of letting me know that he wants some. I tell him to hunt it down, while I bag the bagels.

As he heads off with the cart, I note that, at 16, Calvin is as big as me. Probably taller, because his curly hair is piled high. Mental note: needs haircut.

Next we’ll hit Trader Joe’s, then it’s over to Rosauers. After that, it might be Five Guys for a burger and a bag of fries – our reward for hunting and gathering the weekly provisions.

It’s hard to believe he was only 9 – and his sister, Carly, just 6 – on Oct. 28, 2006, when my wife, their mother, Laura Crooks died of sudden heart failure. She was just 37.

Seems we’ve always lived this way. Dad and son grocery shopping. Daughter hanging out with friends or staying home now that she’s older (and wiser). She’s never liked shopping of any kind – a trait she got from her mother. Who am I to discourage such a thing in a soon-to-be teen?

When Carly was born, I took a week off and wrote about it, noting that I was the assistant parent. I could’ve done without the way I was promoted to full-time, totally-in-charge, what-have-I-forgotten-this-time status, but it has enriched the relationship with my children and forced me to finish growing up.

Now I sweat the small stuff, because I can’t avoid it. As it turns out, the small stuff matters. Planning the week, paying the bills, buying the groceries, tending to wounds, purchasing personal hygiene products (love those self-checkout lanes) and ferrying the kids to school, concerts, dance practice, karate, dental appointments and on and on.

It fills the day, and it fills the soul. I’d honestly be lost if I didn’t have these duties.

I don’t do this alone. Our invaluable Samaritan, Margaret, cooks, cleans and keeps us on track. The kids are greeted by the smell of baked goods as they arrive home from school. Friends reliably pitch in, and we have essential long-distance support from family. My bosses are flexible, as long as the work gets done.

I think single dads have it easier than single moms, because we generate more sympathy. “That poor man. How does he manage?”

I’m happy to take advantage. Just look at how widowers are portrayed in popular culture. Boomers grew up watching “My Three Sons,” “Family Affair,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” where cardigan-wearing dads imparted wisdom from the comfort of their easy chairs. As for dinner and chores, Uncle Charlie, Mr. French, Aunt Bea and Mrs. Livingston had those covered.

Meanwhile, the writers for “Alice” and “One Day at a Time” handed their frazzled moms difficult dilemmas to face mostly alone.

Sadly, society expects less of fathers. There’s the awkward “Where’s their mother?” moments, and the waitresses who assume I’m just treating the kids to “a little Dad time.” I’ve grown accustomed to being the only man hawking Girl Scout cookies or the only parent who can’t help with costume changes at dance performances.

Here’s a tip: YouTube has videos on how to put hair in a bun. Oh, and tights and nylons are not the same thing.

The truth, of course, is that solo parenting is relentless and exhausting, and I don’t have any special wisdom, though I do have another tip: wear an apron. Seriously. It protects the shirt, plus you can keep the cellphone, car keys and wallet in the front pouch. Who has time to search for those things every morning?

As for raising kids, I often approach problem-solving the same way I tackle an editorial topic. I conduct research and consult experts, trying my best to distinguish first-world problems from actual ones.

It may seem odd, but I’m actually less opinionated at home than at work. If the kids can successfully get through the day without doing it my way, I see no point in debating the process. But like any parent, I sometimes pull the wrong reins, or yank them without justification.

My wife, Laura, laid a solid foundation, so that’s helped immensely. In a recurring dream, she is back home without explaining where she’s been, and I don’t ask. Instead, I spend this precious time detailing the new family logistics, and she never says a word.

Judgment, it appears, will have to rendered by my courageous kids, who seem to have made a secret pact to go easy on me. They do their homework, get good grades and keep the drama to a minimum. It helps that they know everything.

“Time to wake up.”

“I know.”

“Need to mow the lawn.”

“I know.”

“The dishwasher won’t empty itself.”

“I know.”

At times it seems as if I’m the kid and they’re the adults. I’ll ask if they want milkshakes or to go to the movies.

No thanks, they reply, and could I please turn down the music?

Their eye-rolling keeps my dancing to a minimum, and a perfectly timed “seriously?” can nip a budding comedy routine. I still think my idea of an urban burrito shop called Yo Wraps! has potential, but I don’t have the benefit of knowing it all.

I’d love to pluck some deeper truths from our plight and hold forth, but each attempt feels forced. What happened was horrible, and the best we can do is to cherish the positive memories and be mindful of the scars. In the meantime, we try to keep things light-hearted and in perspective.

When dropping off the kids at school, I used to say, “Have a nice day.” Now it’s a truncated, “Have a day.” It wasn’t intentional, but it seems fitting. Have a day, because even the worst one beats the alternative.

To keep memories alive, I make it a point to talk about Laura, who was also a journalist, and take the kids to her gravesite. They need to know their mom was special. We’ve traveled to Tucson to visit the Women’s Hall of Honor at the University of Arizona, where she was inducted. Friends nominated her as a leader from her days as the editor of the school newspaper.

We miss Laura fiercely, and it hits us in different ways and at different times. Silence is the trigger for me, so I crank the tunes and fall asleep with the TV on.

Though only 12, Carly is the best at expressing the sense of loss, as shown in a poem she wrote for Mother’s Day. Is it sad? Sure. But I think it also shows strength and growth, which I find comforting.

In fact, I can’t think of a better Father’s Day gift.

The stars lean in and cover the sky, again

Now I’m lying awake and missing you, again.

If we had another chance, would you leave, again?

If the world could hear my cries, would it send you back to me?

Because you love me.

Since you left I’ve been up most every night.

Are you one of the stars that shines in the night?

When you were here did you tell me a story late at night?

If you heard me crying, would you come back to me?

Because you love me.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks is an editorial writer and columnist for The Spokesman-Review.

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