Some say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. For me, it’s been the most important meal of my life.
When I was growing up, my mother’s mental illness meant that she did not wake up early. It also meant that she never made me breakfast, even though she was the parent who stayed home. Fortunately, early on my father had mastered the art of a scrambled egg, buttered toast and limited conversation. That was enough to bring my teenage self to the table each day.
“Eat,” he’d say to me as he put down the plate filled with food. It was often our only verbal exchange at that hour, as we usually spent our meal together in silence, quietly reading the newspaper or a novel. He was not a particularly accomplished cook, but I loved the regularity of those mornings, and the way they made my life seem uneventful and decently normal.
My father was one of the town doctors, and he was known for being a good one. He was also known for his devotion to my mother. She was in and out of the hospital and often spent days in bed, and I think many people found his quiet patience with her illness quite incomprehensible. But I was a child, so I did not realize the utter commitment it takes to not scream or cry at the unfairness of such a situation. I just knew my dad would always be downstairs in the morning, working in the kitchen without complaint.
It did not last forever. My mother’s death, by suicide, seemed impossible to fathom when it eventually came. My father was left with two teenage girls and a mountain of grief. And yet I only saw him cry once, at her funeral. I was so young, and knew little about loss, and so I understood almost nothing about how shattered he was. I only noticed that he didn’t make me breakfast for a long time after that.
Almost 20 years after my mother died, I called my father one fall afternoon and tried to understand the new reality I faced. He had seen the scan we sent him earlier in the day, and his years of medical training meant he understood — at least a little bit — what was wrong with my husband. We spoke to him together, and he was cautious in his assessment of what the scans might mean.
“Maybe it’s not cancer,” my husband, Shawn, said after we hung up.
“I totally think that’s a possibility,” I said.
But I knew my father. Later that night, after Shawn had fallen asleep and I lay awake with a thousand thoughts running through my head, I called him again.
“Dad,” I said, “I need to know how bad this is.”
“It’s bad,” he replied, “and you need to plan. Is Shawn’s life insurance current? Can you go back to full-time at work? Can you get the kids on your health care plan?”
I physically shook from his questions. “What are you saying, Dad?” I hissed at him. “What are you actually saying to me? What kind of questions are those?” I was furious.
Somehow we made it through the holidays. But it was a steady slide downhill for Shawn. Without much debate or conversation my dad extracted himself from his life in the Pacific Northwest and moved in with us in D.C. All of a sudden he was helping me parent my kids through the uncertainty of our new reality as well as the all-purpose, everyday chaos that surrounds a family with young kids.
For a while, I went back to work. My husband and my father spent that time walking around the block together, talking about music and life and cancer. They did not talk about my mom, but it was on Shawn’s mind. “If I die, it will be okay,” he said to me one day.
My husband had always been a realist. Just like my father. I think, in many ways, he saw the quiet strength that enabled my dad to endure after such a tragic loss. Maybe he knew that I would need that strength sooner than we both imagined. It was only weeks later that my father stood next to me and watched me hold my husband’s head in my hands as he died. I moaned with grief when I knew — finally — that he was gone. My father had probably done the same when he found my mother, though I don’t know. I had been too young. I never asked.
Immediately after Shawn’s death, I did the unthinkable every day. I gave his eulogy in front of hundreds of people at the funeral. I addressed the grief and questions of my children head on. I showered (sometimes). Through it all, the fog of grief surrounded me. Often, I asked my dad “How can I do this?”
“The first year is hell. The rest are just terrible. But we survive.”
It was not exactly encouraging. But it was honest.
I had never really thought about how it must have been for my dad to lose my mom. The loss of my mother was always framed in my mind as my loss: no mom to help me pick out a wedding dress or weep when she met her grandchildren. But as the days after Shawn’s death wore on, I started to think more about my dad and his grief. He had never remarried, and I remember him saying once, “You get one real love, Marjorie. I had mine.”
My mother’s and my husband’s deaths were different. And yet they both left a young spouse behind to pick up the pieces. All around me, people were encouraging, but my father never sugarcoated anything. “You will do this,” he would say to me when I was despondent, “because you can.” I guess he was thinking back, at least subconsciously, to all those years before when everyone wanted to tell him how to raise teenage girls and move on with his life. He knew, more than anyone, that it was a monumental task.
At night when I would cry at the kitchen table about my loneliness, he would sit there with me, saying little. I appreciated his silence. What could he really say? When I stopped crying, he would get up and start emptying the dishwasher.
“How long will you stay with us, Grandpa?” my 9-year-old daughter asked one day at breakfast. A few months had passed since my husband died, and many people who were initially around had returned to their normal lives.
“Until you graduate from high school,” he said without pausing. “Or maybe even longer.”
“Good,” she said, and ate the bagel that he made for her.
He turned to me. “Eat,” he commanded as he shoved a plate of eggs at me.
He wasn’t leaving. Earlier that week, he had told me that he was moving in for good — or for at least as long as I wanted. I could feel his eyes on me. Maybe he was remembering what it was like to be me.
“It’s getting cold,” he said about the food as I stared out the window in silence.
I was so tired. I was a 39-year-old widow with three little kids and seemingly a lifetime of sadness stretched before me. I sighed, thinking about the day.
“Eat,” he said again, pushing the food toward me.
I stuck my fork in the food and looked up. He was still watching me. He put a cup of coffee next to my plate and sat down to eat his own breakfast.
I ate the eggs. I ate them because he made them for me and I ate them because I could.