“Mom, after you die, will I see you?” I am washing dishes, and let the hot water run across my hands a bit longer than necessary, immersed as I am suddenly in the colors and buoyancy of each tiny bubble. Has anyone – ever – answered this question effectively?
“I don’t know, Sweetheart. Some people would say, ‘Yes.’ ”
“What will happen to me if you die?” I have just asked her to go upstairs to begin her shower. Is this a stall technique or genuine concern? She knows every button made in my size and she has been a clingy monkey all day long.
“Mama would take care of you, of course. But I don’t think we have to worry about that for a long, long time.”
“It – it probably wouldn’t happen, but – what if you and Mama died at the same time?”
I stop washing dishes finally and give her my full attention. “Yes, it’s highly unlikely we’ll die at the same time. But we do have a plan for that. Just in case.” She waits, staring at me with heartbreaking gravity. I debate with myself. Do I tell her the plan? Will that make it more real? How much reality and how much reassurance? Both are needed, and I am definitely off my game. “Your sister would take care of you,” I tell her. Yes, her sister who is 21 and just finishing college.
“Oh, good!” She is visibly relieved, and looks as if she may scamper off with some other nighttime not-a-shower distraction, so I relax again, KNOWING that I cannot field these questions tonight – but halfway out of the room, she turns back and joins me again at the sink. “What if Grace dies, too? I mean – just – what if?”
“Honey, I really don’t think we will die anytime soon. We all take care of ourselves and we are all very healthy. But you have aunties and grandparents and uncles and friends and parents of friends who love you and look out for you, and they will all keep looking out for you no matter what. They would care for you. You know that, right? You would be okay.”
“I would be sad. I would be really, really, really sad.”
“Yes, and you would cry, and they would take care of you, and you would find a way through the sadness.”
Where does she get her tenacity? Once she gets her teeth into a topic, my little girl will not let go.
For me this whole time, running under our conversation like a drumbeat swelling are two things – a worry and a memory – a worry for the stress in our lives which is not my business to share, and a memory from what feels like the middle of the night when I was nine or ten, a memory of me as a child sitting on the kitchen stool, a stool which for so many years had been my Time Out Chair (the naughty chair) and now wasn’t. It was a simple two-step-stool topped by a seat with a short back. They were pretty common in the 1970’s or 1980’s, I think, or anyway during my growing-up years. Ours was pin-striped, maybe green or grey. I remember walking down our dark hallway and sitting myself down on this stool at 10 or 11 at night, just once, watching my mom unload the dishwasher, plagued by the sudden comprehension that someday I would die. Plagued by my own mortality. I don’t know why. I don’t think anyone in our lives was dying or sick, and it was long before talk of death permeated the walls of my house. But I remember being truly panicked, unable to return to bed. I remember my mom unloading the dishwasher, just staying with me, talking some but mostly just staying with me until the panic subsided and I was ready to take myself back to bed.
I have no idea if this is how my daughter is feeling now, but she stops this line of questioning briefly, waiting until after her shower to pick up the threads. “What would you do without me, Mami? What would you do if I died?” she asks then.
“I would cry more than I’ve ever cried in my whole life.”
She kisses my cheek. I kiss the top of her head.
Then we snuggle in my big bed, reading The Care and Keeping of You, an American Girl book covering bra selection and puberty and hormonal mood swings, hair and foot care. After a few days of browsing, reading and re-reading her favorite parts, we are now working our way through from start to finish. Tonight, we read the chapter on ears. We learn a home remedy for swimmer’s ear.
Bedtime arrives. I tuck her in with the usual care, and thunder claps send the bigger of our two dogs scurrying under her bed, so I stay by her side, petting them both for a long, long time.
When I stand to leave her bedroom, my daughter is fast asleep and our sweet spotted dog, her eyes never leaving my face, follows me downstairs.