Late last week, as Lily stood on a chair at the kitchen sink and “washed” some dishes and silverware – a recent obsession I love, because I know precisely how much she’ll hate this chore one day – she pointed at a cocktail shaker and asked Joe, who was overseeing things, “What’s that?”
Joe, of course, didn’t give her the item’s proper name, fearing that she’d turn Sunny Day Care into the set of a “Mad Men” episode by way of martini references. So instead, he said, “Sometimes Mommy makes a special drink for herself, because she works very hard, and this is what she uses to make it.”
Hearing this while sitting in the next room, I cracked up. And in fact, some of our funniest moments of late involve translating the world for our curious two year old.
But some of the hard questions have already started coming, too.
This past Sunday morning, after we all ate breakfast, I went upstairs to get dressed, and Joe and Lily soon followed. Joe lifted Lily onto our bed, and she assumed Joe’s place, lying on his pillow.
“Put the blanket on me,” she instructed me.
I pulled up the sheet, but she insisted she wanted more blankets, including the beautifully hand-stitched white quilt that we’d rolled over the end of the bed frame for the summer.
“Your Grandma McKee made this,” I said while snuggling in next to her.
“You had two grandmas,” Joe added, lying on Lily’s other side. “There’s the Grandma you saw yesterday, with Grandpa. But just like you have another grandpa, Grandpa McKee, you had another Grandma, too.”
Without pause, Lily asked, “Where other Grandma go?”
Suddenly, two reasonably articulate adults were struck dumb at the prospect of explaining cancer and death to a two year old.
Unlike the situation with the cocktail shaker, there was no cute, shorthand way to respond. And I had to stay true to my beliefs, too; so I couldn’t just paint a rosey picture that I didn’t personally buy into.
“Well, sweetie, she died,” I said.
Immediately following this simple statement of fact, tears ran down my face, and I struggled to figure out what to say next. I was stuck.
But in that pause, Joe asked Lily if she might want to see her cousins later in the day, thus distracting her while giving me a moment to run a palm over both sides of my face and shake my head clear.
This is only our first brush with the really tough stuff, I know. As Lily grows up and understands more, I hope to explain how different religions and philosophies view life’s end, so she knows that my own worldview isn’t the perspective she necessarily has to cleave to herself.
Yet I also plan to tell her more about my mother, of course, as well as how much Lily’s presence – despite, or even perhaps because of, being only nine months old – at the time of my mother’s death was a gift that completely surprised me.
In the moment, I’d worried that, as a new mother, I wouldn’t have the time or opportunity to properly grieve my own parent, and I’d dreaded the logistics involved with dragging an infant onto planes and long car rides as we attended two memorial services in two different states.
What actually happened that week, though, was that Lily forced me to stay grounded instead of mentally floating away, as if walking in space untethered; funeral attendees all brightened for a moment at the sight of oblivious, happy Lily in her little dress; and she mercifully rolled with everything we threw at her, be it sleeping in a strange hotel room, nursing in a frost-coated minivan (in a restaurant’s parking lot), or being bundled up against Indiana’s freezing January temperatures to witness her first burial.
She was a little trooper throughout the trip. And although those first months of motherhood had been extraordinarily difficult for me, and I’d wondered at times whether I’d made the right choice for myself, this personal crisis was my first real glimpse at the potential benefits of motherhood.
Before deciding to have a child of my own, I’d always imagined that being a parent would feel like being pulled down by an anchor that always kept you from going very far.
And in fairness, there’s much truth in that. But the fact is, in times of upheaval, when we could easily spin out of control, an anchor is precisely what most of us need.