Friday, March 14, 2008

The bond

I was going to try to work a clever 007 joke in here somehow, but the definite article in the title is making that difficult, so I am giving up. On to the subject then.

I am having trouble finding the right way to start this. I have turned it over in my mind a few (dozen) times, and I am still not sure where this tale should start. So perhaps I will start by making a simple disclaimer. It wasn't my choice. It wasn't our choice. She did it herself. She equated her brother to herself in status as a child of this family a long time before he died. I used to ask her "Who do I love most in the world?" and since she was a baby, Monkey learned to answer that it was her. And then, when she learned there was a baby growing, when she learned it was her baby brother, she started pointing to herself, and then to my stomach. My sister told my mother, before the day it all went wrong, of course, that Monkey saying "shabbat shalom, little brother" into my stomach every Friday night after we lit the candles was the cutest thing she had ever seen.

She beamed. She told strangers she met for the first time that she was going to be a big sister. She was possessive-- she would tell us it was her baby. We would tell her yes, your baby brother, our baby son. Nope, she'd say-- all mine. A sibling, her dream come true. The way she found out, even. We had been debating about when to tell her, and kinda decided that we'd do it after the anatomical scan. But about ten days before I was putting her to bed and she just came out and asked me whether there was anybody growing in my tummy yet. Because we have a policy against flat out lying, I called JD upstairs, and we told her. But first I inquired as to why she had asked. Because, she said in the tone of stating something completely obvious, I am kinda bored here by myself. Right then.

Right after A died, before he was born, there was a fit pitched by my MIL about us daring to even think about telling Monkey the truth. It would scar her for life, see? Since then there have been others who said or implied that it would've been gentler to minimize it in some way for her. I am always dumbfounded by that suggestion, just as I was that day in my hospital bed. How, I wonder? She had her object permanence down. She knew her brother was in, and he was supposed to come out and come home to live with us. How was I supposed to explain my no longer baby-containing belly in a way that wouldn't cause her to lose trust in her parents on top of losing her brother? How? After the fit, JD decided he wanted to avoid saying the word "died" to her. One of the children's books we saw while at the hospital was about a girl who has a rosebush that the family planted when the baby brother who was supposed to be born didn't get to be born. JD liked that way of putting it. That's what he wanted to say-- your brother didn't get to be born. OK, I said. But I think you are going to lose. I think she knows enough to figure it out. I was right-- it took her two minutes and about four questions to ask whether her brother died.

She knew what a cemetery was-- there are two not half a mile from our house. She even knew what a funeral is-- her friend told her all about his great grandma's funeral. I had wanted to take her to the funeral, at least if she asked about it as I thought she might, but JD didn't. I told him that one day he will have to explain it to her and maybe apologize. In the end, she didn't ask, and we didn't take her. Not bringing her was probably the right decision, for us. We cried rivers. We held the little casket. Brining her would've meant that we would have responsibility to help her process what was happening. As it was, we were free to do what we needed to do, to be in the place we needed to be.

I thought she would ask later, about where her brother's body is. A couple of times she came close. We saw a funeral procession at a cemetery we passed, and she asked who buries people. Family, I said, and friends. Do you want to ask anything else? No. Based on little clues like that, I started to suspect at some point that it is on her mind. I started to worry that maybe she thought that we didn't bury her brother, that some indignity befall his body instead. That she was too afraid of what it might be to ask, or too considerate of our feelings, our grief.

January rolled around, and with it a barrage of art. Cards to her brother, cards to us, drawings. It dawned on me some way through the month that even if she didn't remember the dates, she remembered events, and she is feeling the time approach. Then a book came from school, a book she made. The picture on the bottom of the page was pretty unmistakable, although I did ask for clarification just to be sure. It is A's skeleton underground, she said. Got that? Skeleton. Not A, not A's body. His skeleton. I knew then we would have to take her.

A few days later I told her we would go to the cemetery if she wanted. She had a million questions, chief among them who buried A and why didn't she get to go. And then the snowy January interfered, stranding us until it was almost anniversary. So that is when we went. On the anniversary day we stopped by the store to get the kind of flowers she insisted on bringing-- red roses-- and then picked her up from school.

She read the little marker, and there was pure glee when she figured out what A's middle name is. We don't have middle names in the Old Country language, so it was actually a few years before Monkey even knew what hers was. A's hadn't come up, really. There is a kid in her class whose first name is A's middle name. She was genuinely happy about that little discovery. She read more. Died the marker says, and then the date. I don't like that word, said Monkey. I know, little one, it's a very sad word. There is a line for age on the marker too, but it's left empty for babies.

She touched the marker, over and over. We unwrapped the flowers and spread them around. She looked strangely at them. Do you want to take one home? Two. Ok.

Normal. It was all very normal. But it's not exactly easy to watch. JD had the hardest time with it. It's ok, I said. She is entitled to all these emotions, and we need to remember that she shouldn't have to mute them for us. There is no bandaid big enough to put over this booboo. When we drove out of the cemetery, she waved, a lot. She used to waive good bye at things when she was little. She hadn't done that in a long time.

The conversation where I told her about the cemetery started with me telling her a friend of hers in another city had a baby brother. Same conversation where she admitted to being a little mad at A for pulling the cord. Why did he do that? Oh, fun-- I thought we took care of that last year. Repeat the lesson on babies don't know what they are doing yet, twice-- second time with JD, for good measure. Also the conversation where she told me she had thought A would be born on March 9th, or maybe her birthday, and that she thought it would've been cool. Right. Great. She remembers everything. Crap.

After the anniversary things quieted down some. For most of February there wasn't any A-themed artwork. And then there was. Barrage of it. Incredible matching hearts with names written on them, plus some other words and drawings, colors of appliqué hearts and backgrounds flipped for hers and his. A card. "Dear A, I miss you a lot and love you very very very much." Finally a different card "Dear brother, we will see each other in the cemetery." Right, time to go again. "...see each other..." was hard to take, by the way. Directionality. And yes, I eventually caught on to her marking approach of his due date anniversary.

We ended up going again last Sunday, on the anniversary of the due date itself, the day after Monkey's birthday. My parents were in town and wanted to come too. She knew where the grave was, headed straight for it. Wiped the marker with her finger. She needed a lot of hugs. She dug up the little pebbles that snowstorms moved from the marker and carefully placed them back on. She asked whether daddy was crying (yes), and grandma (hard), and mom (a little bit, under the sunglasses). She said she wanted to cry but it wasn't working. We told her it's ok not to cry, you can be very sad without crying. Eventually, though, her tears came too. She needed to hug me, she stuck her hands under my sweater to warm them up. She wanted to kiss my belly. This was something she started doing the week before-- wanting to kiss my belly again. She said she knows her brother isn't there, but when she kisses the belly it's like he still is. When I kiss you, it's like I am kissing him too, she explained. Physicality, something else she is missing.

So the bond. There certainly is one. It makes me so sad to contemplate how one-sided it is. Monkey has a special bond with her brother. Not Monkey and A have a special bond. Mind boggling the depth of loss the distinction reveals. She didn't know the depth of pain she was opening her little heart to that fall day when she asked whether there was someone growing inside. Our grief is the mirror image of our love, I decided some time ago, the pain revealing how much love was, is, there. So the big question then-- all other events immutable, if I could, would I choose differently for her? Would I choose to spare her the pain?

It's not an easy question to answer. In choosing to spare her this pain I would choose for there to be one less person who loves A so deeply and unconditionally. Very few people are supposed to do that. Hell, to even remember him. So for me, selfishly, giving that up, erasing it, that wouldn't be a trivial thing. For her, though? Don't we all want to spare our children this level of pain? Any level of pain, really? Ok, maybe not any-- Monkey knows that I am of firm belief that girls should have plenty of bumps, scrapes, and bruises. Because the ones who don't have them? Chances are they are missing out on fun things. So not any, but this much?

The protector in me would want to spare her. But the budding ethicist isn't so sure. What right would I have? To spare the grief, I would have to take the love, and what would give me the right to take something that deep, that central? How can I even remove her from the reality of grief that our little family has lived with for thirteen and a half months now? Wouldn't that create a big disconnect, big enough to pay for some shrink's boat one day? (Yes, I realize that her mother having this ability might be fodder for couch discussions too.) In essence, does "it's better to have loved and lost..." hold true for five and six year olds?

In the end, I am grateful that I wasn't given this choice, that I don't have the power to make this decision. Instead, I focus on helping her through the tough times. She is not damaged, I am sure of it. She just knows things and is sad sometimes.


Anonymous said...

Kids are much "smarter" and perceptive than we often give them credit for. To not say anything about where your baby went would be devaluing her, and if nothing was said...over time...the longer it went on, the harder it would be for her to bring it up. And that could have lead to other talking about it and validating her feelings and emotions, is the right thing to do. Kids are so amazing and stronger than we give them credit for as well. They have the ability to love freely and completely. It sounds like your daughter will be better off for having been allowed to learn about and express herself.

I hope your family finds peace with your loss. It sounds like you have an amazing little girl, to help you through it all. Her brother is very lucky to have an angel on earth watching out for him as well.


Beruriah said...

No, she is not damaged. I am sure of that too. I never thought about how with Monkey around, there is one more person to love and remember A. That is beautiful.

A stunning, moving post, Julia. Thank you.

charmedgirl said...

husband's mother and father spared him...she's told me many times he grew up in a kind of disneyland. his initials are MGM, on purpose. she would say, "he was an MGM production!!" they waited until he was "a man" to treat him with any kind of respect (which for them meant, pretty much, the opposite). i think it was the worst kind of child abuse, to keep him from learning coping skills, emotional keep him from learning about himself and how he fits (realistically) in this life.

how terribly sad it would have been, had she been robbed of her brother. children deserve respect; i think monkey is incredibly fortunate to be so respected. julia, this post is inspirational.

sweetsalty kate said...

Evan's a bit young for such fanciful artwork, but if I saw him create something like that for Liam someday, I'd bubble over, my heart and my guts all spilled out everywhere with rightness. It would be a total mess.

I think this is yet another post-loss moment where you simply have to shut your eyes and trust your instincts, feel the imprint A left on you, and not apologize for a single damn thing. You already know how to honour him with Monkey, how to stand beside her as she comes to her own reconciliation and her own remembering. Pooh on whatever anyone else thinks about what she can and can't handle. You're her mama, and his. You know.

You're absolutely right to just relax into it, be truthful with her, continue to tell his story and help her learn how, too.

Beautiful post.

Aurelia said...

Gentle truth telling at the child's own pace is always the right thing to do. Always.

You did it on instinct, letting Monkey do what she needed to do. Kaz was younger, but we still ended up telling him because he needed to know why mommy and daddy were so incredibly sad. We didn't want him to think it was his fault, and if we had lied to him, he might've.

And honey, I don't think that it is a one-sided bond. A knows your family remembers him and loves him. Wherever he is, in whatever form you believe in, he is surrounded by love and kindness, just as he was in the months before his birth. He heard Monkey's voice, he felt the kisses, he heard your singing.

You are right, she is definitely not damaged. She is just where she needs to be.

Catherine said...

This is THE thing I have had the most "trouble" dealing with...Sam's loss. I can be sad for myself, but my heart breaks for him. He was three when Alex died. At three, I'm supposed to still be able to kiss his boo-boos and make it all better. Now, at almost six, he knows things I didn't know until I was well into my thirties. He knows that mommies can't always make things better. That sometimes loved ones die and they don't come back. And I hate it all.

niobe said...

This will probably come out wrong, but I feel immensely jealous of the bond, one-sided though it is, that you describe.

In my family, the twins don't really count for anything. If pain is the mirror image of love, it's crystal clear that no-one ever loved them. No-one misses them. No-one thinks of them as siblings or cousins or a niece and a nephew or grandchildren. In fact, I'm not really sure if my family even remembers their brief existence or that a long, long time ago, we all looked forward to their arrival with such hope and joy.

Tash said...

This post made me cry, for a few reasons.

Monkey is so, so wise for her age. And empathetic, and sensitive, and really just wonderful.

You said the key word here in my mind: "Entitled." She is entitled to everything she feels, says, wants to believe. It is her right. It is her loss too. My husband went through similar trepidation about telling her, but I opted for straight and direct, never looked back, and I think really it's the best for everyone. Less squirming around on your part, not that the explaining is ever easy.

I'm most upset that Bella will probably only be a sister in that empty, painful, half-assed way that I'm a mom of two. It pains me to no end when she comes home and announces that a friend at school or worse -- a character from a book or tv program -- is her "sister." I'm really not sure what to do. Reiterate that her real sister is dead? We've kept the "I'm a big sister!" books on her shelf, and read them if she desires. Along with "Why Dinosaurs Die." And keep our fingers crossed that she matures and grows into this grief with the compassion of Monkey, and hopefully the understanding that her mom really did try.

wannabe mom said...

now i'm a wet, sniffling mess.

it can't be easy dealing with your sadness and helping Monkey sort out her feelings. you and JD are amazing parents raising an amazing Monkey and remembering and loving an amazing A. ((hugs))

Cindy said...

Julia, I don't know if I've ever commented on your blog, but I read it faithfully and am always deeply moved.

What you wrote about Monkey's love for her brother being one sided really struck me. After my little guy died in utero at around 17 weeks, I tried all of the "traditional" ways of dealing with the grief that I felt for both myself and my then 3 year old daughter. When none of them seemed to be working very well, I said screw it! and went to see a psychic (not unusual for where I live in CA!). I didn't tell her why I was there but she immediately told me that she saw my baby over my left shoulder. I remember her saying, "Wow. The baby loved you but he stayed as long as he did for his sister. He adored her!"

Now, sure, the psychic part may be all mumbo jumbo but for some reason those words gave me so much comfort. To think and imagine that the baby felt love for his sister and that her pure, sweet love for him was somehow returned. The thought still makes me smile. Even through the tears that still fall.

Thanks so much for sharing this.

delphi said...

I am so moved. Thank you.

Bon said...

this moved me deeply, too, Julia...your accounts of Monkey's empathy and clear love for A have done so all along, but this one especially.

to me, it sounds like you have done something've given a sensitive, emotionally capable child the respect and entitlement she deserves to learn to grieve in a supported environment, where her love and her loss will always be honoured. would that we all never had to learn the very important skill of grieving...certainly. but since we do, would that we could all learn with the grace Monkey is.

i hesitate on this...but the post left me wondering all the way through. has she asked yet, again, about this new pregnancy? and how does the prospect of all of that make you feel?

Magpie said...

Heart-rending post. You have a wonderful little child there. I'm all teary. Thanks for the post - I'm sure it was tough to write.

c. said...

Monkey sounds like such an incredible, intuitive child. Her belly kissing brought me to tears. What a beautiful, loving gesture. Stunning.

To have to deal with this hurt through the eyes and hearts of my children has been one of the most difficult aspects of this experience. We told them from the get go - about the death, the cremation, everything. They even got to see and hold and kiss (if they wanted to; my son opted not) their brother. I am so thankful for this, although I was very hesitant to involve them at all. I wanted to spare them the hurt...but, I guess I've learned that they hurt regardless. Children are intuitive and, above all, they are resilient.

This post is indeed inspirational, Julia. Amazing.

kalakly said...

I sometimes think that the only thing worse than having given birth to my dead child, is that I will never know or truly understand what that experience, that loss, has done to my living children.

It sounds like you are doing all you can do to help your Monkey find her way through her grief.

Isn't this thing called parenting turning out to be everything you dreamed of...and more.


Natalie said...

Damn. Dealing with your own pain through the grief is hard enough, but to deal with your child's as well.... so hard. Monkey sounds incredibly astute and very perceptive.... and I think you definitely did the right thing in giving her answers, in helping her understand. I don't think hiding things from her would have helped her out in the long run.

kate said...

I also think she is not damaged -- less damaged than Alexander from the sound of it, though i can't say for sure yet about him. We were/are always a fairly closed family when it comes to emotions.

I think you have done a wonderful job parenting her. And yes, watching them grieve just breaks your heart all over again.

Julia said...

Thank you, all.

Niobe, that makes me so sad for you.

Bon, she doesn't know yet. Which is why the whole belly kissing is genuinely unrelated...

ms. G said...

Julia, I agree with what everyone has already said. Monkey sounds very sensitive and aware, and I think you are doing the right thing to just guide her through it and not "protect" her.

I knew a young girl who had found a dead bug on the ground and asked her father why he wasn't moving. He told her it was sleeping, and even though this was long before my loss, I just knew this wasn't right. Yes, we want to protect our children, but we really can't protect them from this, the realities of life. We don't need to force the truth on them, but I think we need to be honest when they ask questions. Exactly what you seem to be doing.

Ahuva Batya said...

This post was so beautiful, so painful, but so beautiful. Monkey is wise, and compassionate, and surely that is merely a reflection of those who have loved and raised her. Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal experience; it moved me, and has left me deep in thought for the pain we experience, all of us. I feel sure that Monkey is not damaged, but is stronger, and wiser, and that is because of how you have helped her through this.

Elaine Williams said...

This is so beautiful. elaine

meg said...

Wow, Julia. I can't really add anything else to what everyone else has said. But a beautiful and inspirational post, for sure. And Monkey is an amazing kid. No doubt.

Anonymous said...

Monkey is wise beyond her years. She is the type of child I hope to have one day.

I wonder if she is somehow aware of your pregnancy. She is so intuitive and seems to process things that many adults are not able to. She really is an impressive child - and her mother is impressive, too.

thrice said...

Wow, what a stunning post! Out of the box children don't do well with in the box appropriate answers. Monkey is lucky to have you, since you read her so well.

Amelie said...

From all you wrote about her, I think Monkey would have known. And it wouldn't have done any good to keep the truth from her. She's smart, and she cares so deeply. I think she deserves to know, and you're trying to bring the truth, the sad truth, as gentle as you can. You're lucky to have each other, I guess.

Janis said...

as you know, I am playing crazy catch-up on the internet these days. I skimmed quickly past the older posts, but this one I read. With a hand over my mouth so I do not wail out loud. How old is Monkey?
We told our 2 girls at the get-go. Their baby brother died. It had been killing to watch their grief journey, allowing all the questions, getting used to the words-- "baby who died"; "we have a baby brother who died" and "Will we have another baby who will not die?" But, I have no regrets. I think they have taken it in stride and they are much, much wiser than we give them credit. It is a delicate act but I think it is so wonderful that they want to keep that love alive. They remind us that love never dies; even if the physical body is no longer present, the spirit lingers, and the love, it stretches, from one realm to another. Sophia drew a lot of pictures of dead things, but these days they truly celebrate the brother. It's freaky but often they tell me, "he's here. right above us." Someone had asked me if they see a baby or a toddler? People in the know say they shd see a toddler, someone they can relate to, not a baby to take care of... Anyways, I just wanted to send a lot of love and hugs... Janis

Lori said...

I think the bond is beautiful and healthy and right. And, who knows? Maybe it isn't as one-sided as we adults would believe. Children are so much more in tune to the spiritual. They find those "thin places" so much more easily where earth and heaven touch.

I have always believed Little T had a connection to Molly and Joseph that I couldn't understand. There was a natural intimacy that he seemed to feel with their few belongings (blankets, gowns etc...) that almost transcended my own. I think he is starting to lose that connection and it makes me sad...

Monkey is such a special, amazing sister. I just love that girl (without even knowing her).

gwendomama said...

oh wow. normal. though it's not normal to have to lose your son or your baby brother.

we have the ashes of our son. we want to take them and scatter them at the beach we have named after our son. our daughter remembers him and she is now nearly 7.

we cannot agree on what to do. i want to bring her, he doesn't.

STE said...

This is a beautiful post and such a moving tribute to your children, and the "bond" your daughter has created with her brother, simply by loving him.

So beautiful.

Megan said...

This is the loveliest thing I think I've ever read – I keep coming back to read it again.
Oh no, she's not damaged. She is so blessed.