The unnatural silence that every mother knows means something out of the ordinary is going on, usually involving something ghastly like a toilet tea party or that someone is bleeding.
I let my ears peel the silence, test the atmosphere of the house—no muffled sounds of joyous jumping-on-the-bed shrieks, no plaintive “I’m holding my sister down because she wore my shirt to school” help me groans. The only sound was thick, purposeful quiet.
Which, in some ways, made my mommy senses tingle even more.
I wandered upstairs; taking care to tread carefully less I interrupt the shenanigans before they could be observed. So I could wrangle a good “love your sister” object lesson from the fresh trouble they had almost assuredly concocted on this cool, Fall, Saturday morning.
I walked up the stairs clutching a fresh Mr. Eraser, just in case Sharpie markers were involved (again).
The fab four were not to be found in their usual places—not in the upstairs den building pillow forts, or in the garage crushing goldfish crackers into fish dust, nor hiding in my closet pilfering through my shoe collection.
I rounded the corner of the hallway that led to their bedrooms and heard the faintest shuffling coming from E’s peace sign-themed, hippie room. The door was cracked the tiniest bit, allowing the sounds of their unusual meeting to reach my ears.
“Shhh,” I heard the baby whisper, “Some things we just don’t talk about. Even here. Even when it’s just us.”
The “baby” who is not really a baby at all, but was almost four. The one that still cried for her dad almost every day, just like her mom. The one that got the notion in her sweet little-girl brain that her daddy was still alive and living at our old house and just didn’t want to see her, even though she had gone to visit his grave dozens of times.
I pushed the door open, quickly, not knowing what I would find, my hand knocking Emma’s marabou-trimmed Peace, Love, Cupcakes sign off the door as I walked in.
Four sets of eyes looked up and met mine, each expression offering me a clue about the nature of the gathering: guilt, relief, concern, happy-to-see-me-edness.
B shrieked, “It was all A’s idea! She told us not to talk to you about dad, that it made you sad because you missed him so much, that it made you cry.”
E smiled at me, “We wanted to tell you mom, but we wanted to wait until you were strong enough. Until it didn’t hurt you so much. I told them it would be fine, that you would be fine. That it would all be okay.”
A looked at me stoically, owning every bit of her not-quite-11-years old plus 20 years, and answered, “This is our Secret Sisters Grief Club, mom. We meet here to talk about dad, to remember the good times, to share our memories of him so we don’t forget. We keep his memory alive. You cry when you even look at his picture, so I told the girls to not talk about him to you. I told them to save it for the meetings.”
The baby grinned widely and chimed, “I’m so happy to see you, Mom!”
I noticed that she was still holding a silver sparkly baton, which someone had tied ribbons around. I understood immediately that that is why I had heard her whispers from the door—she had held the baton and the floor.
Words failed me.
Everything became vibrant—the energy of the room heightened—the moment felt important. I knew I had a choice to make, I knew I could not let them continue to face this alone. What hurt me the most was that I didn’t even know that was what was happening.
“Guys,” I heard my own voice speaking, thick with emotion, awe, at these little beings that I was given to mother, “I am so sorry.”
I told them that from that day forward, even if I cried, even if it was hard, we were going to talk about their father, relive and revel in every good moment, keep his memory fresh and alive in their hearts and minds.
I sat down and told them the story of how we had met 20 years ago, during a blind date. It was the 4th of July, and he had taken me to see fireworks. And I certainly did cry, but it was the good kind of tears.
The kind of tears you cry when you have something so wonderful for a while that it makes your soul ache when it is taken from you. The kind of tears you cry when no explanation will ever suffice to make the loss make sense.
The girls looked relieved and happy—as if a great weight had been lifted.
Later that night I thought about how amazing my daughters were. How empathetic and soulful they were to want to protect me. That they would hide their own pain from me in attempt to shield me from further hurt.
I made a vow that night that no matter how much it hurt, no matter how uncomfortable it made me, I would keep my late husband’s memory fresh, whole and alive for them. I would teach them about their father’s love for them. We would process and deal with the grief together, the five of us. We would move through the pain to the other side and find joy, no matter what.
The next morning, I hung our wedding pictures back on the wall. I placed our family pictures in a place of honor once more.
I welcomed their father’s memory back into our home.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Provided by the Author