For a little boy who lost a great, great father? There is no replacement. What is there?

He was not there, is not here, and we are left to find small ways to do the impossible: to fill a cosmic black hole of maleness, energy, wisdom, intensity, thunderous laughter, endless empathy, and a deep knowledge of – and respect for – the game of football. 

Because I am a daughter and am the mother of a daughter, I know well the power and impact of the father-daughter relationship. We may identify with, or run to – or from – our mothers, but it is the original dance with our dads, studies show, that we spend our lives replaying, re-enacting and shadow-boxing with.

Fathers and sons share an equally fundamental and powerful dynamic, one that shapes a son's identity – one I'm thinking about a lot as we approach the hat trick of Mother's Day, Father's Day and my nephew's birthday, the death of my brother, his father, remains the most profound presence.

When Fathers Leave – No matter how or why

Fathers leave – or never enter – their children's lives for a lot of reasons. Some by choice, and some, like my brother, are ripped from their sons against every fiber of their being.

So how do we, the mothers and aunts of these sons, tend to the presence of this terrible, aching absence?

Who steps in? 

In my post: Living With the Great Ache: No Dad on Superbowl Sunday, I wrote about how my daughter, sister-in-law and I did our best to create a fatherly, festive vibe for the Superbowl. But in the end, the simple truth was this:

My nephew's father, my brother, was not there Sunday to thunder around the house with his lion's roar, his foundation-shaking laugh. He was not there, is not here, and we are left to find small ways to do the impossible: to fill a cosmic black hole of maleness, energy, wisdom, intensity, thunderous laughter, endless empathy, and a deep knowledge of – and respect for – the game of football.

We tried, my sister-in-law, daughter and me. We tackled and tickled. We grunted when they punted. We yelled out words like 'interception' (my daughter wondered if that was like an 'interjection') and field goal. 'KICK IT KICK IT' we screamed.

He laughed his wildly loud (for a toddler) laugh and ate a lot of blueberries. He scrunched up his little fists and punched and punched the air, tackled the dogs and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the half-time show. Every once in a while, after my brother's wife would let out a 'boo ya' or a peal of 'defense' or 'offense' of 'just get the ball, boys!' I'd see that shadow darken her eyes in that split millisecond of time-lapse emotion you develop when you are in perpetual grief.

I know and understand that so many young men grow up outside the influence or, or without a relationship with their fathers. There are many complicated reasons and choices and factors that go into those situations. And, there are so many wonderful kids who grow up to be wonderful adults and fathers, themselves, regardless. Today I'm only talking about my nephew, his loss, our loss, which involved no choices. Just horror. The boy's father was taken from him, from us all, and we're still reeling.

One of many awful ironies of the loss of my brother is that he eagerly sought out and served the role of mentor, guide and father figure for so many of the students in the incredibly disadvantaged high school where he taught. One of the newspaper articles about my brother marveled about how he brought his scholarly mind and impressive Ivy League education to Chicago's West Side. His fancy degrees are the least of what he brought to those kids. He brought his whole heart and soul, his thunderous laugh, his big bear hugs and his unquenchable belief in the possibilities we all hold within us.  

At my brother's memorial service, students from the West Side Chicago high school where he taught and coached their spoken-word poetry team, shared poems they wrote to honor my brother, Josh, their beloved teacher, Mr. C.

One young man, who just days before sat silently with us in the hospital, wrote these words about my brother that I cannot shake:

"He played the role my father never auditioned for."  

How can it possibly be that my brother, who eagerly took on the role of mentor, guide, coach, father, to so many fatherless sons, is not here to be a father to his own son?

So here we are, the family of women, mothering this darling boy. We could not adore him more.

And yet, we cannot father him.

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