Homework help was something the boys usually went to their father for.
Chris, my husband, loved a good joke. Tall and good-looking, he came from Irish roots. The Quinns lived on Bainbridge Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound.
We met in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up, and married young. I was just 17, Chris was 19. We lived in a small apartment in Northwest Portland at 19th and Johnson in the Alphabet District. Later, we moved a few blocks over to 20th and Flanders. Today, this is a high-rent community, but when Chris and I moved into the neighborhood, it was one of the few places we could even consider.
Chris drove me to my high school in Lake Oswego. I graduated, but, oh, it was hard. Our babies came quickly—three adorable little boys: Jamin, Nathan and Adam. Such personalities! And like their dad, they were all jokesters. Chris and I loved them so, but we had not figured on the hardships.
I struggled to cook and keep house, tend to the boys. Exhausted by a life that never offered a break, and with never enough money to cover the bills, I felt like a child raising children. Chris, a musician, played drums for a 1970s rock band, and was constantly in search of gigs. He also worked at a lumber mill and took factory jobs when he could, but we just fell further behind in debt. The stress was overwhelming.
Our hearts broke when I took the boys and left. I had to find another way. Friends helped me get work, helped me with the kids. Somehow I had to support us on my own. As long as he remained in the Portland area, Chris was able to see the boys on weekends. He sang to them, taught them to play ball and joked with them endlessly. Anything to make them laugh. But he was serious when it came to their homework. No slacking allowed. They were the light of their dad’s life, and they knew it.
But Chris had diabetes, and he did not take good care of himself. After a stroke, he moved in with his mother on Bainbridge Island. I would drive the boys up to spend a month with their dad in the summer. On the four-hour drive home, they regaled me with fun stories of their dad.
Three years after Chris and I divorced, I remarried and had a little girl, Erica. Whenever I drove the boys up to visit Chris, Erica rode along. She grew to love him, and laughed at Chris’s antics like one of his own kids.
And then it happened, so suddenly we could hardly believe it. Chris had been ill, unable to keep food down, and in the night, he aspirated. His mother found him in the morning. Again, our hearts were broken. At Chris’s funeral, Jamin spoke eloquently. Adam, so young, wondered: “Where is heaven?”... “What is God like?”...“Will I see Dad again?” Grieving myself, I struggled over his questions. Yet my middle son, Nathan, had me even more concerned. He was in sixth grade and became so quiet it scared me. Our home at the time had a backyard that stretched to the bank of the Willamette River.
The day his dad died Nathan sat alone out there on a rock. “Chris,” I whispered. “I wish you were here to tell me what to do. You were so good with the boys.” Like little Adam, I wondered too, Where was heaven? It seemed far, far away. Too far away to see his sons play the sports he’d taught them, hear Jamin sing at school concerts, help all of the kids with their homework. Chris and the laughter he brought were gone from our lives.
Days passed into weeks, then months, and I busied myself with ensuring the kids had all they needed. One of the times I missed Chris most. One afternoon Jamin and I were talking in the living room. “I feel so proud of you guys,” I told my oldest. “I wish your dad could know how well you’re doing.”
“Maybe he does know, Mom,” Jamin said with the confidence of a high school junior. How happy that would make me! Later that evening I sat on the couch knitting when Nathan interrupted. “Mom,” he said, “I don’t understand the extra-credit question on our algebra homework.”
“Try me.” As if there was any way on earth I’d be able to help. Algebra was not my strong suit.
“‘Why did the nomad pitch his tent on top of the stove?’”
“That’s the question?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with math.”
“You got me,” I admitted.
“We’re doing quadratic equations, and I think I got all the problems right. So much for extra credit. Good night, Mom.”
It was time for me to turn in too. I fell asleep with the odd image of a stovetop tent in my head. At some point in the night I awoke to music. My husband slept soundly beside me. But someone was singing. So clear, I could hear every word. I knew that voice! I knew the song—an old western ballad.
“Chris?” I whispered into the darkness. His presence felt very real. And that song . . . why was he singing “Home on the Range”? Then I drifted back to sleep with his lullaby. The next morning at breakfast, I told the boys all about my strange dream. “I guess it was a dream,” I said. “Your dad was singing that song ‘Home on the Range.’”
“Mom!” Nathan shouted. “He figured it out! The extra-credit question. It’s a brain teaser!”
“What?” the rest of us wanted to know. “How?”
“The nomad pitched his tent on the stove because he was just that— at home on the range! Get it? In a quadratic equation, the range is all the possible values of one of the variables.” Nathan cracked up.
“That’s cool!” his brothers said. Erica and I didn’t completely follow, but Chris had us laughing anyway. After school Nathan reported that only he and one other student had gotten the right answer. Nathan neglected to tell the teacher that his answer came from a dad who still loved him and watched over him from heaven. Which must be closer than any of us had imagined.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Angels on Earth magazine.