Me: (pausing in the middle of one of our favorites, John, Paul, George, and Ben) Did you know that Benjamin Franklin used to near live here? Would you like to go see his house some day?
Bella: Is he dead?
Me: Yes, but sweetie, he was very old when he died, and he died over 200 years ago.
Bella: I'm going to live forever. (Pause, eyes rapidly fill up with tears) Mommy, am I going to die?
Me: We're all going to die, love. But hopefully not for a very, very long time.
Bella: But I'll miss you when I die.
Bella: Mom, what does a brain look like?
Me: (pulls up a picture on the computer): like this, pink, kinda mushy and squiggly. Here's a map of what all the different parts of the brain do. (I touch her head to roughly correspond with what is responsible for seeing, hearing, memory, language.)
Where did you hear about the brain? Did you talk about it at school today? Hear something on tv?
Bella: No. So it would be bad if I hurt my brain, wouldn't it.
(We've never, to my knowledge discussed Maddy's medical problems in front of Bella -- at least not intentionally, and the last phone conversation we might have had where we were doing the talking would've been a year ago August.)
Bella: (pointing at my stomach) Mommy, do you have a baby in your tummy?
Me: No, no I don't.
Bella: Then why are you fat?
Bella (at breakfast, out of the blue): Mom, when are you going to have another baby?
Me: I don't know. I don't know if I will have another baby.
Bella: Why. (Delivered more as a statement than a question)
Me: It's . . . Because I'm old.
Bella (While baking apple cake, again with no segue): Mommy, when are you going to die?
Me: I don't know. Hopefully when I'm very old.
Bella: (voice catching) When am I going to die?
Me: I don't know. I hope when you're very old. Hon, I know it's hard (BELIEVE ME) to think like this, but we can't worry about it. We need to enjoy just being alive, right now. If we keep worrying . . .
Me: . . . we won't be happy . . .
Me: . . . maybe you can let mommy worry about it . . .
Bella: When are you going to have another baby?
I remember like it was yesterday, sitting knee to knee across from the social worker at Children's, who was sent to talk to us about Bella. This, 2.5, is the hardest age, she warned us. Any earlier, and she wouldn't remember. Any later, and she'd have some verbal ability to express her emotions. She's going to grow into this grief. One to two years from now, it's going to come up, when it's inopportune, when you least expect it, she's going to start talking about it. That's ok. That's normal. Just know it's coming.
The conversations have been coming fast and furious lately. Out of nowhere, the eyes pool with tears, and suddenly Bella and I are hugging and I'm dredging up words I never use anywhere anymore: "I hope." "Hopefully." But I'm never definitive, never emphatic. I stifle my tears because I want her to know she can talk to me about these things without the fear that she makes mommy dissolve.
And there is an obvious connection that is not lost on me.
School has started, and this year Bella attends five days in a class with 16 or so precocious four and five year olds. At the beginning of the year, two mothers were incredibly pregnant. One, according to the happy notice pinned outside her classroom next to the snack sheet, had a baby girl a week or so ago (and named her, much to my chagrin, after one of my favorite bloggers here. It's a peculiar stab in the heart to see that name on that sign every morning). "Please help us in welcoming X's sister!" I wonder what that paper would've looked like had Maddy been born in the school year. Black, with white writing? Perhaps a crayon drawing of a lily? But I digress: there has been an uptick in discussion of all things pregnancy and siblings and babies. "So-and-so's mommy has a baby in her tummy," Bella announced. "So-and-so has a new baby sister."
We've had discussions with Bella since February '07 on Maddy. And on death. The former trend towards lilac bushes and bracelets, identifying her in pictures and "remembering;" the latter on hearts shutting down, inability to breathe, loss of bodily functions (like eating and running) and the esoteric notion that all living things die. These discussions are always on her timetable, at her discretion, with her permission. But they have been on two separate tracks -- Maddy here, death there -- until now. The rivers of thought have finally converged, and suddenly out of nowhere there are profound discussions on death, siblings, and life all mashed together over a semi-soggy bowl of cheerios, during a cute history read-aloud, or while I'm peeling apples. There is no longer confusion: Her sister, her BABY sister, died. She, Bella, will die someday too. We will all die. Living things die. But we are alive now, and her friends get to bring home LIVE siblings, so why shouldn't she?
Last Friday evening, Mr. ABF and I attended the pre-school parents wine/cheese get-together for Bella's class. All well and good, until the host's husband (who is eternally away on business) asks Mr. ABF if Bella is our only child. To which he responds "Yes." And I hear the regret on his voice while the word is still hanging in the air, and I look down and feel . . . .guilty. I'm so tired of this. I'm so tired of hiding this part of my life, I'm so tired of tip-toeing around others' sensibilities. While our hosts drone on about "Woo boy, we would've NEVER had another had we known what we were in for --- our first was wayyyy to easy!" Mr. ABF shoots me a mental "I'm sorry," and I telepath back that I most likely wouldn't have had the mettle to bring down an evening right from the start, either.
Later, there's a 20-minute discussion where everyone chimes in on how at one point or another they "forgot" their second child -- in their heads, in their arms, in the car -- and through the laughter, Mr. ABF and I mentally prop each other up and wonder how in fuck we're going to get through a lifetime of these inane conversations. We're like aliens standing there, listening to a room speak in Swahili while we stand on the perimeter missing the punchline -- and always will be.
I don't begrudge these people their stories -- hell, I'd be one of those parents that left a kid in a grocery cart -- I just wish I could add to them. But I either have the easiest second child on the planet seeing as how her remains neatly fit into my purse and can be left at home on the shelf while we go to the beach for a week, or the hardest to forget. I'll never forget my second child. She's the fifteen-pound ring around my midsection, the downward gaze of my husband, the circles under my eyes, the bracelet on my wrist. She's the wall between me and every parent in this room. She's the reason I'm choking down my wine with a stony expression. She's the reason I have heartbreaking discussions about death with my child -- anyone else having those?
And we say nothing. Everyone is laughing, dressed up, enjoying time away thanks to the babysitter. We collapse in the car on the way home, grateful to be out of the lion's den, and yet rueful that we missed another opportunity to introduce people to our normal. To our children. It is utterly exhausting to be in public. Still.