I joined Eleanor at school for lunch today. Her school encourages parents to come for lunch, though I rarely do because I want her to gain independence. We already spend a lot of time together. Also, I have plenty of other things to do such as writing, cleaning the house, and eating all of the chocolate.
I knew she would be thrilled by the surprise, especially on this long week back after winter break. She looked twice when I walked into the cafeteria. Was this happening? Yes! I sat across from her, and her friends immediately began to talk. One of them had a birthday today, and so the others had to tell me their birthdates, and there was a bunch of chatter about a book that they had read last year about a runaway gingerbread man. The kids were breathless with all they had to tell me.
I asked Eleanor whether she ever talked at lunch.
“Well, not really. It’s kind of hard,” she said.
No kidding. In the midst of the jabbering, two girls sitting farther down the bench began to ask, “Does Eleanor have a sister?”
At first, I pretended not to hear, a ploy that was believable given the noise bouncing around the cafeteria. The pair persisted. “Eleanor’s mom! Does Eleanor have a sister?”
I paused, considering whether to throw the light switch or keep my middle child tucked safely in the dark. Their asking suggested that Eleanor had talked to them already. How abandoned would she feel if I lied when she had spoken the truth?
“Yes, she does,” I said. They waited. “Her name is Genevieve.”
That seemed to satisfy them, so I left it alone. I try to avoid discussing death with other children. Such a personal topic. We all have our own beliefs. I know that Eleanor mentions Genevieve to other children though, and I have heard her argue with her disbelieving friends. It pierces me.
I’ve been handed this child who is so sensitive, and I want to tell her that she should keep her sister a secret, not for the sake of other people but for her own protection. But there are happy secrets, and there are sad secrets, and sad secrets always seem to imply guilt or shame. We cannot talk about this because other people will think we are weird or crazy. In my own life, I use circumstances to decide when to introduce Genevieve. That’s a difficult and painful judgement for me to make, so I’m not going to ask a 6-year-old to try it. I am teaching my daughter to speak the truth even when it makes other people uncomfortable. I am teaching her to speak the truth even when it makes me uncomfortable.
I tell myself that this will be best for her — and for our family — in the long run. I worry that I am being selfish, that my own personal interest in keeping Genevieve’s memory alive will hurt my living kids. I worry that they will feel they weren’t enough for me despite the daily parade of kisses and hugs and “I love you’s.” There’s a reason — many reasons, really — that parenting books don’t touch this topic.
Maybe my children would feel safer if I kept this hidden. Maybe they would feel happier if when they asked me what I wanted most, I said “a vacation” or “a diamond” or even “world peace.” Then they wouldn’t really know me, and that seems a huge loss, too. Even after going through all of this with Eleanor, I find my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth when Henry points at the framed footprints that belong to Genevieve. He doesn’t yet understand, and I will have to help him make sense of this thing that seems impossible even to me. Your sister died. We lived.