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.