“Why I haven’t met your Daddy, Mommy?”
I’m still not clear on what triggered that completely reasonable question from my almost 4-year –old. I’ve had to answer it before, but this time there was more behind it. Lately I’ve noticed Miss O becoming increasingly observant and I can see how this is going to be a problem for a lot of people. I know I was woefully unprepared to have this discussion even though I’ve been dreading it since I found out I was pregnant. I knew it would come someday, but I don’t think I was truly prepared for the weight of it or how soon it arrived.
We were wrapping up dinner and she was negotiating for something again. She stood in front of me as I sat in my chair turned toward her. I saw her eyes wander over my shoulder to the buffet where we keep photos of each set of grandparents. She’s seen them a million times. When she was around a year or so old, she used to ask to “eat with them.” We would pull the photos down, stand them up in front of her, tell her what they were called and how they fit in the family. This is one of the many weird things you do when you have long distance family.
She asked where my dad was with the confusion and concern of one who’s been denied some great treasure, which in my opinion is absolutely true. Her face showed equal parts indignation, sadness, and hope. It was the hope that got me. I think I only lost it on the inside. I felt the tears roll on the outside, but it was nothing compared to what was happening within.
I lost my dad in 2004 to what I now understand is a thankfully short battle with cancer. I still haven’t allowed myself to fully grieve his loss and I try to stay as strong as I can for my mother. Mostly that means we don’t talk about him unless absolutely necessary or in moments of intense emotion. I recognize how incredibly unhealthy this practice is.
It didn’t help that we were fresh off a very earnest pre-kindergarten-level discussion of her new favorite song “You’ll Be In My Heart” by the incomparable Phil Collins. You may recognize that from Disney’s Tarzan. I did not. Thank you Hubs and Google. Honestly, who gave this child her timing and contextual appropriateness?
I doubt the two conversations were intentionally related, which somehow made it more jarring that she asked. I have no idea how long the conversation went, but I know it felt like years. It probably would’ve gone quicker if I had answers ready to go. Again, I mailed in the prep on this one. It could be avoidance. I don’t know. I’m not a professional. It’s probably avoidance, though. I doubt my answers would have been different have I given them any real amount of thought, but I’m sure my delivery would have been a little less blubbery. Maybe I would have been able to look at her more instead of our hardwood floor, which apparently is in desperate need of refinishing or at least a good cleaning.
We have tried to be honest with Miss O in all things, keeping to a level that is sensitive and appropriate for her age and maturity. We use real words for things and have only done baby talk when we were “playing baby” with her and even that was more intonation than incomprehensible babble. It’s part of why she can say stethoscope and phlebotomist. It’s also great fun to watch other adults react to those kinds of words come out of her mouth. She knows proper names for body parts and uses them, much to my husband’s chagrin, in public and in mixed company. If I can handle her yelling about her itchy vulva in Target, you’d think I could handle this.
She knows that “dead” and “die” mean that person isn’t here anymore. We had to explain that when Cinderella’s Daddy didn’t come home after his trip. She saw Cinderella crying so she asked why and we told her. Why should we lie about that? We knew she didn’t have the depth or the weight of true understanding, but I wasn’t about to make up some crazy story I’d get caught up in later and have to explain away. She’s also going to have to learn about it at some point, so why not start gently now, with situations that come up organically and examples she can digest? I was also really pleased to see her showing genuine empathy for Cinderella. If she could have reached through that screen and hugged her to make it better, she would have.
Hubs is almost of no use when these things arise, though he’s getting better. He absolutely cannot handle discussions that remind him of his own mortality. I have an easier time of it, though I’m not exactly going gangbusters to think about it as I get ever closer to my own time. It’s something we all do. With that in mind, I tried to calm down enough to let her ask whatever questions she had until she was satisfied enough to move on to something else. To his credit, Hubs remained sitting across from me at the table and listened to her questions, trying so hard to keep it together the more I cried. The grammar is all hers.
Miss O: “Why I can’t see him”
Me: “He’s dead, baby.” Not a sentence I have said aloud more than twice in ten years.
Miss O: “Why he’s dead, Mommy.”
Me: “Because he got very sick and his body broke.” This is the best way I could describe cancer without swearing a lot.
Miss O: “He got sick?”
Me: “Yes, baby.”
Miss O: “Where is he now?”
At this point, I know I paused a little longer than usual because this is where that preparation would have really come in handy. I’m not a religious person. I went to church when I was younger and before Miss O joined us, Hubs and I would attend Vespers every year at Christmas as a present to my mom. I enjoy the music. I consider myself more spiritual than religious, which is definitely a conversation for another time. Unfortunately, none of that helps when you’ve successfully avoided preparing for a very heavy spiritual conversation.
I am grateful to Hubs for already giving me the answer I needed for now and possibly, always.
“He’s in the stars, baby.”
I know this is not the end of the conversation. She will ask again and maybe I’ll be better prepared next time. Maybe I will have finally dealt with my own grief enough to begin sharing his memory with her rather than feeling the loss of him. I’ve promised her I will share some stories about him and more pictures, which is a promise I intend to keep. She deserves to know him any way she can and it’s my job to shine his light for her every time she looks at the stars.