Friday, October 19, 2007

Big sister

Today was a long-awaited day-- Monkey's first official play date at our house. She's had friends over before, lots of times. She even had kids stay overnight more than a few times. All these kids, however, spoke the Old Country language, Monkey's first language, and these interactions never sounded quiet so official. This time, though, I went to school for pick up and signed out two kids instead of one.

Berura is a nice kid. Interesting I think is the word I was looking for. Even-keeled. Inquisitive. I don't think I have ever seen her running around with abandon, for example. But I have seen her climb and slide and swing. She has what seems like an external internal monologue going by which I mean that often she comments, rather than asks. For example, as she was getting into my car, she commented that this is the second car she's been into without a car seat. Seemingly to nobody. But when I pointed out that there is most certainly a booster, it just happens to be built-in she delightedly engaged the conversation. At my house she confessed her fascination with and penchant for all things winged, particularly butterflies and fairies, and asked me to direct her to our flower patch where she could sleep and drink, since that is what butterflies do, and as she was standing there wearing Monkey's dress-up butterfly getup, she was clearly in need of one. But that was much later. First there was the trip home.

The trip would've been entirely unremarkable-- some random babbling, some discussion of what CD is to be played, some discussion of what's on the CD, ok maybe a little remarkable for me getting that first chance to hear how Monkey now does conversing in English-- except that from what appeared to me to have been out of nowhere Berura declared that she is a big sister. And there it was-- the moment I knew was coming, but one that nevertheless made me tense up and go a little cold inside. I wasn't watching the rear view mirror for glimpses of the girls in the backseat. I can't tell you why. I could try to sell you the line that it was because it was raining and it would've been a bit on the dangerous side, but I doubt you would believe me. Maybe it was because I was afraid that when I see her she would see me, and more than I bargained for in my eyes. I'd like to think, however, that it was instinctual, that it was because I didn't want to interfere, to influence, even with a glance, the dynamic of what was coming.

"I am a big sister too" said Monkey.
I could hear a small noise from Berura, like she was confused and getting ready to say the obvious, about the lack of observable siblings. She never got a chance. Monkey was continuing.
"I had a brother, but he died. But I am still a big sister."
"Still a big sister" repeated Berura. She was not asking. Half observing, half wondering. It was clear she has never heard of such a thing, that it was strange, but also that she didn't plan on challenging this new definition.

In the electric silence that followed I still didn't glance back. I was so proud of her, of her comfort with claiming that which is hers. In the familiar pairing, my insides were tense, and I was sad. Sad, among other things, that this was all that was left for her to claim. In the end it was me who broke that silence, because I thought that's what a mom should do. I will never know whether Monkey was watching the rear view mirror, waiting to lock on to my gaze for support.

"Almost home" I noted, with a bit too much enthusiasm.
"I know that" Monkey replied.
"Yes, but Berura doesn't."
"Ah, I forgot." And with that Monkey dove into a spirited description and then narration of the rest of the way to our house.

The girls had a lot of fun at the house. Aforementioned dress up, drawing, roleplaying, crepe making and eating (yum!), make-believe ice cream party, featuring our previously new package of playdoh, and even some clean-up-- it's hard to believe they crammed it all into two and a half hours. When Berura's father showed up for pickup Monkey was sad and neither girl wanted Berura to leave. The magic of the promise of a reciprocal play date, complete with the specification of who would pick them up from school, finally placated them, and it was all over. After Berura left Monkey and I finished cleaning up, and she took her time finding creative ways of using family room rug and furniture in lieu of regulation gymnastics equipment.

We didn't talk about that conversation in the car. She didn't come to me, and I don't want to ask her. I don't want to overemphasize something that she seems to have integrated so thoroughly into her understanding of self. I don't want her to become self-conscious next time the topic comes up. I wonder, though, whether Berura forgot all about it, or whether she was puzzled enough that she will think of it again, and whether she will ask her parents if or when she does. I have only a passing acquaintance with her parents who seem like very nice and thoughtful people. I hope that if she does bring it up they will accept and find a way to affirm Monkey's words. And I hope that if the story finds its way back into the classroom the teachers will be there to catch it and to offer support, like they promised they would. That's really all I can hope for. But I wonder whether I should email them to let them know it has begun, to give them the heads up. Honestly, I thought it would happen much earlier, and I worried about A becoming Monkey's identifier, of her becoming "that girl whose brother died." I hoped instead that all these new kids and adults would get to know Monkey first, and that for all these people A would become a facet of her story, not her whole story. So now is ok. I hope now is ok.

Because of this episode today I came to realize that this part of the story is hers. To live with, to understand, to tell. The story of a baby brother who made her a big sister, albeit of the kind that so few can see and appreciate. The story of the big sister who is still bursting at the seems to do all these things big sisters get to do, who needs to claim that identification, whose normal is so different from and yet so similar to everyone else's normal. Today I pause ever so briefly to pat us on the back for helping her get this far. I think we did good. But I also realize that there is a lot more work to do. One day we might have to talk about the days she was home and we were at the hospital, when she was still waiting for her family to change, and everyone else knew it already had. There will also be a day when we take her to the cemetery, and probably one when she asks us where A is now. This thing, it never ever ends.


slouching mom said...

Gorgeous post. Gorgeous.

And I'm so proud of Monkey. She said what she said to her friend with such grace and confidence and ease.

You should CERTAINLY pat yourself on the back for your role in that.

niobe said...

I think I like Berura. You've also clearly done a great job in making Monkey confident enough of her identity as a big sister that she's able to share it with her classmates, opening their eyes to another of the many different types of families.

Aurelia said...

I've overheard conversations like these in the back seat before, and they are bittersweet to me. Knowing my child is coping with our family loss, yet also knowing that it isn't my secret loss only, that I can't "keep" it to myself.

They have grief too and need to express it. So eventually is becomes a normal part of their lives. Berura will definitely say something to her parents at some point, if not now, then the next time she thinks of Monkey. And her parents won't believe it until they discreetly speak to you or the teacher and then they will.

Navigating the schoolyard politics and our personal lives can be----interesting to say the least. I've met a lot of lovely kind kids like Berura, a couple of nasty kids who were cruel, and yet most of the parents were simply tongue-tied and had no idea what to say to me. Slightly weird.

Take care and if you want to chat, let me know.

Beruriah said...

What to add? Niobe's right - I admire how you have helped Monkey integrate her new family, as much as I wish she had never had to. Berura sounds like a nice girl - perhaps Monkey was waiting for the right friend, the right place to bring up A?

Glad the playdate was a success.

thrice said...

So much to say, but too afraid to say the wrong thing.

I'm so happy for you that you were able to witness the conversation vs. hear about it. I am also in admiration of how it all clicked together. You are a wonderful mother.

Julia said...

Thank you, all, for your very kind words. I think I will write that email to the teachers tomorrow, just to make sure.

Thrice, there is no need to be afraid. I am pretty sure you get it, and thus would never say the wrong thing.

Bon said...

late again, but just wanted to tell you that i cried reading this, and it was mostly happy tears. i was just...moved. by Monkey and her apparent ease of assertion, by Berura and her apparent ease of acceptance.

wannabe mom said...

so beautiful. i'm glad monkey found a nice friend.

Ashleigh said...

This is lovely- Thank you so much for sharing it. I often wonder how my children will incorporate Owen into their lives and their picture of our family. I hope I can help them to do it as naturally as Monkey seems to.

Amelie said...

You should be proud of Monkey, and of yourself for getting her there. Berura sounds like a nice kid. Maybe she needed to digest this new aspect of being a big sister before she would talk to anyone about it.

Anonymous said...

Monkey is a remarkable child and you are a remarkable mother.