The call came from the nurse just an hour after school began. “I have Claire here in my office,” the nurse said, “she’s got a fever and is complaining of a headache. I need you to come and get her.”
My dad was back in Oregon for the summer, and so this meant that my work for the day had to be set aside. I went to her school to pick her up. She didn’t look good. “My head hurts,” Claire said as I walked into the office.
I put her in her blue robe when we got home and then tucked her in bed. She fell asleep. I worked on some grading, checking on her every once in a while. I was exhausted, so I changed into my comfortable clothes and robe. “Might as well give in to what the day has become,” I murmured to myself.
Claire woke up around lunchtime. “I feel tired,” she said, “but I feel better.”
I sat on her bed and stroked her hair. It’s odd, but it’s times like those when I miss my mom the most. I think this is because I never had an adult relationship with my mom, so what I remember is how she comforted me as a child. She used to do the same thing, running her fingers through my hair when I was stressed or sick. And now when my kids are in pain, I do the same thing.
“Can we do something fun?” Claire asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said, “you seem pretty sick.”
“Why don’t we make zucchini muffins?” she said. “We used to do that all the time. We never do it anymore.”
She was right. I’d made a few batches of zucchini muffins last summer, but since starting back at work full-time, I hadn’t made them even once.
“Let’s do it!” I said. I think she was surprised that I said yes. So often these days, the answer is “no” to many of the kids’ daily desires.
I came downstairs and opened up my laptop to find the recipe. I used to have it memorized. Shawn loved zucchini muffins, and I’d make them for him just to see his smile and get some extra-long hugs in the kitchen. “Baby, your zucchini muffins are to DIE for!” he’d always exclaim.
I don’t think he ever knew it was just the first recipe that came up if you googled “zucchini bread.”
Claire and I got out all of the ingredients and started measuring and mixing. She was perky after all that sleep, and peppered me with questions. “Did you ever bake muffins with your mom? How do you think I should do my hair for crazy hair day? What was it like to get chicken pox? Can you get a wart on your tongue? What is it like to live in another country?” This went on and on. It was totally amusing – one of those moments when my kid seemed so young, and so innocent.
But Claire is just on the cusp of really understanding the world, and she’s seen enough of it to know that there are bad things out there. “Mom,” she said eventually, “Do you think it hurts when you die?”
“I don’t know, baby,” I said, “I’ve never died. I think that’s a hard question to answer.”
“I don’t want to die,” Claire said. “Because when you die, you’re gone from the world.” She paused for a second. “What happens after you die? Do you just stop existing? Are you just dead?”
“No one really knows for sure,” I said, “but I think there’s something else afterwards. Some sort of heaven or other place where our spirits go. I think it’s impossible to know what heaven is like, but I think there’s something else out there after we die.”
“It’s still scary to imagine dying,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “and you don’t need to worry about that for a really long time. But someday, when you do die, I think there will be a place where your spirit goes. A place like heaven. And guess who will be waiting for you there?”
“Dad!” Claire said. She was smiling. “And Grandma Susan. And Grandpa Tom’s brother, Fred.”
“That’s right,” I said.
Suddenly, her face got a bit serious. “How come so many people in our family have died? That doesn’t seem very fair.”
“No, baby,” I said, “it’s not fair. But as Grandpa Tom says, that’s life.”
We paused for a bit to stir the ingredients. “We should listen to music!” Claire said. “Alexa, play ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’!”
Oh. My song with Shawn.
It came on. “Do you remember the words, mom?” she asked.
I nodded and we started singing. Gradually, we got louder and louder, filling the empty house with our voices. She was overjoyed. “This is our family song!” she said.
I held my tears at bay, and we danced around the kitchen. She was laughing. “This is so fun!” she said.
Her eyes were shining and we played the song again. I snapped a photo as she continued to sing while putting the batter in the muffin tins. After the song ended, we put the muffins in the oven and sat back down at the kitchen counter to wait. “My head still hurts” she said, “but I love hanging out with you, mama.”
She smiled. Her eyes crinkled at the side just like her father’s always had.
Maybe there’s a heaven, or maybe not. But I’m pretty sure that Shawn’s energy is out there somewhere. Either way, I know his spirit was in my kitchen that day, embodied in a little girl in a blue robe.