Every night, the routine is the same. I read a book to Tommy. I read a book to Austin. Then I sit on the end of their bed until they fall asleep. They have a bunk bed, but they both sleep in the bottom bunk together. This is something they did for most of 2017, and it seemed like last fall, Austin was ready to move to the top bunk. Of course, now all bets are off. It’s actually comforting to me that they have each other, even if it means that when one of them wakes up and comes to my bed in the middle of the night, the other one is not far behind.
After they fall asleep, I go and lay on the end of Claire’s bed and we both read. She loves fantasy books about magical lands and unicorns and witches. Before Shawn got sick, I would put the boys to bed and he would read with Claire. After he died, I knew that I had to take his place.
Tonight, as I joined Claire to read, she looked at my book. “What are you reading?” she asked me.
“The name of the book is Rare Bird,” I told her.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
“It’s about little boy who died,” I told her honestly. “His mother wrote it.”
“Oh, that’s sad,” she said. And then she looked at me with a sideways tilt of her head. “Why are you always reading books about people dying?”
She was right. Since Shawn died, I’ve read almost a dozen books about people who’ve lost spouses or children. I don’t know why I’m doing it. I just can’t imagine reading anything else.
But it’s a good question. Why am I reading all of these books?
“Well,” I started slowly, “I guess it helps me figure out what it was like for other people. What it might be like for me in a few months or years. I guess I’m hoping that these books will tell me that I’ll start to feel better someday.”
“But,” she said, “you are feeling better.”
I paused. In her eyes, I am doing better. I can usually move through public spaces without crying and I have started cooking dinner again. People no longer just randomly show up at my house and cry with me. I am back at work and I’ve even started running again.
But I don’t feel much better. The fog has lifted somewhat, but the grief still proves to be relentless. It absolutely will not leave me. So, while I can hold it together for longer periods of time now, when I’m alone at night getting ready for bed and I think about how Shawn used to come in from work and take off his tie…well, that grief still hits me in the same way that it did in January. Like a knife.
I can’t be that honest with my daughter, but I don’t want to lie to her either. “Well,” I said cautiously, “I still feel sad a lot, even if I have times when I feel happy. I guess I’m just hoping that soon, I will start to feel a little more happy and a little less sad. I don’t want to forget Dad, but I want to not always feel sad when I think of him.”
She seemed to take it well. We talked longer about how we missed Dad and how much we hate cancer. We talked about people in my different grief groups and how they have families that are missing people as well. We talked about all the things she wished her Dad had been here for in the past few months.
“Dad missed my birthday,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “but you know he was smiling down at you that day from heaven. I don’t even know how someone does that – see you from heaven – but I know that there’s some way that Daddy is with us in those special moments.”
She sat there and thought about it for awhile. She knows about outer space and we’ve talked about how heaven probably isn’t like the pictures you see of it. How no one really knows what happens next, but how we can still keep Daddy close by thinking about him and talking about him.
“I kinda want to die,” she said. Then seeing the horrified look on my face she said, “I mean, I don’t want to die. But I want to see Dad.”
“I get that,” I said, “but heaven lasts forever, so why don’t you just live to be really, really old, and then when you are really, really old, Dad will meet you in heaven?”
“Okay,” she said.
The whole conversation made me nervous and oddly superstitious. Maybe it was the book I was reading, or maybe it’s just that I fear death a lot more than I used to. “Just promise me you won’t die for a long, long time,” I said to her.
“I promise!” she said. “And you can’t die until you are like 100.”
“Okay,” I said, “I promise that I will live to be 100 years old before I die.”
“Good,” she said. “I promise to live to be 200 years old before I die.”
Then she laid her head down and we both went back to reading. She read about friendly witches who own a bakery and I read about a dead child and his mother’s grief. It crossed my mind as we were reading that maybe I needed to try a new topic out at some point.
Eventually, she fell asleep, and I went to my room. When I finally fell asleep, I was still filled with grief, but I was also filled with the hope that my child would keep her promise. Because I can’t take anyone else leaving me ever again.
We pinky swore we would live that long. And you can’t go back on pinky swears.