First Day

A young father learns to handle life alone


My daughter Elisa recently emailed me pictures of her daughter Gillian smiling and ready for her first day of school. I’m certain my granddaughter hugged her mom goodbye with fear and excitement and anticipation and walked away into a brand-new world, just as Elisa hugged me some 25 years ago. But I wonder what Elisa did after Gillian disappeared into that swarm of first-day students? She probably choked back, then wiped away, a tear and marveled at how quickly the time had gone: all those natural and sentimental feelings of parenthood. The day I dropped Elisa off for her first day of school I returned, for the first time in my life, to a quiet and empty house.

I’d been raised in the crowded, loud and rollicking house of Irish immigrants. A brother or cousins or neighbors or a priest or aunts and uncles were always sitting and perpetually eating and drinking at our kitchen table. I married young and had five children of my own, the best way, rapid fire, so you can deal with them when you’re young and energetic and stupid. But then my wife, Luanne, died of a rare, quick and deadly cancer, and I was now widowed and young and sad and stupid. The eldest was 10 when Luanne died and Elisa was three, and I was busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest waiting tables and wiping noses and helping with homework and driving to soccer games and cooking and trying to finish my first novel. Thank God for that hurricane of confusion. If I had time to deal with the dread and perplexity of facing a life alone with five children, I probably would have given up. But if you have kids, you can’t give up.

I remember when Elisa was about Gillian’s age, she woke me up at 2 in the morning. She stood in front of me in the half-light of the bedroom. Her hair was mussed and her Flintstone pajamas were rumpled. She had been crying. In a voice that barely trembled, she said, “I can’t remember what mommy looked like.”

I didn’t say a word. At that moment her grief was irreconcilable. The world had snatched another thing from her: Luanne’s face no longer existed as a ready and reliable memory. For Elisa, the time to cry and say goodbye to her mother wasn’t at the official funeral, but in her pajamas on a warm August night 25 months later. On this night, with Elisa, I did the only thing a father can possibly do in this situation.I made hot chocolate.

Elisa was sitting on my lap, drinking her chocolate, when I asked her if she wanted to look at some pictures of her mother. She nodded a silent yes. As I rummaged in the closet for photo albums, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. At times, it had been comforting to look at old pictures and reread poetry I had written Luanne. At other times, it was like picking a scab. But Elisa and I sat down on the kitchen floor, and soon—it would have been sooner, but I spilled my hot chocolate—pictures were scattered all around us. Elisa latched onto a picture of Luanne holding her older sister Rachel. “That’s me, huh, Dad?”

I couldn’t lie. “No, Ellie, it’s not.”

She asked, “Can I have this picture?”

I said yes and she walked to the refrigerator, grabbed a magnet and positioned the picture halfway up the door. She returned, kissed me and hiked off to bed. It didn’t matter to Elisa that she wasn’t the baby in her mother’s arms. There was something in the image: Luanne’s eyes, her hair, the way she held the child that resurrected the spirit and memory of her dead mother. All the kids had their moments like this while dealing with their mother’s death.

My moment was Elisa’s first day of school.I dropped her off and returned home to a house strewn not only with five children’s detritus, but with the overwhelming fact that I was alone. Not suddenly, but finally, the grief had me to itself. Man, it hurt. It hurt beyond pain and tears; it ached to the point of surrender.

You can delay grief with activities or chemicals, but you cannot deny it unless you choose not to heal it. Elisa’s first day of school was also the first day I faced, and precisely the time I began to mend, the actual and excruciating emotion surrounding the death of the woman I loved.

Rob Loughran still waits tables, currently at the Farmhouse in Forestville. His latest collection of short stories, ‘What Happens When the World Doesn’t End?,’ is available at

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