She knows she has another brother, one she can’t play with or see or talk to or torment. One who won’t torment her back, the way her eldest brother does.
“He’s in our heart,” she says, pointing to her chest.
“Yes, baby,” I tell her. “He’s in our heart.”
“I’m not a baby,” she says forcefully. And she isn’t, of course. She’s four. But she doesn’t only mean that she’s too big to be called baby. She knows she’ll always be my baby. Daddy’s baby. Our baby.
What she means is that her older brother is the baby. The boy who was born a year before she was, but who will somehow always be a baby. Who will never grow up, and who we can never look at, the way we look at one another.
The baby in our hearts, whose place is in the starfish urn on top of the dining room hutch.
He is the baby.
She pushes a chair up to the hutch sometimes and swipes one of the tiny toys we have surrounding our lost boy’s urn.
“That’s brother’s toy,” I tell her, pulling it from her agile fingers. “Those are the only toys he has. Let’s leave them here for him.” I place the little whatever-it-is back on the little block of felt my eldest made for him in the fourth grade.
“No, me,” she demands, grabbing the toy back. She climbs up the chair and puts it back on the felt mat. She thinks for a second, then grabs it again. I go to correct her but before I can she kisses the little figurine and puts it back in its place.
“Here you go, brother,” she tells him, running her fingers over his urn.
People ask if she knows about her brother, and I say yes. Of course she does. She knows about him in the same way she knows about her grandpa who died long before she was born, and her grandma who died when she was a baby.
“They’re in our hearts,” I told her once when I was beside myself with uncertainty, hesitant to open up death talk to a toddler. She looked at me so intently, so assuredly that my arms prickled with goosebumps.
“Yep,” she said with a nod. Then, “Do they hear our heart beeps?”
I pulled her into my lap, smiling. “Heartbeats,” I corrected before even really thinking about it.
“No,” she insisted, “heart beeps.”
“Okay, heart beeps,” I concede. Who am I to argue?
She didn’t ask again, and I didn’t press it. I don’t ever press it; never, ever push. But I don’t hide him, either. Like I don’t hide my mom, whose ashes are in another urn in the dining room, behind the picture of her when she was young and radiant and absolutely beautiful. She points to it sometimes, tells us that’s where her grandma is. But also, Grandma is with Grandpa. They are, all of them, everywhere.
It’s the best way I know how to teach my children about death. About love and life in the aftermath of it. And within the awful, empty wrongness of having to endure this infinite grief, it feels like some measure of rightness. It is the best I can do for all of my children.
I don’t know if my parents hears my heartbeats. Sorry, heart beeps. I don’t know if my son hears them, either. But I do know that they are there, in the quiet space between each and every single one of my heart’s gentle movements that mean I am here living on without them. They are there, and they are loved. And they always, always will be.
This post originally appeared on RunningNekkid.
Image via Wikimedia Commons