Today is Dalton’s birthday. Had things been different, we would be celebrating, with him. Instead, your dad is skating at the Dam with all your uncles. You wonder why you too, aren’t going skating.
I have thought about explaining death to you. We thought about what words we would say, ideas we would use without choosing a belief system for you. You’re only three years old, but you’re just too aware and too intelligent. I cannot teach you the life cycles of plants or why it’s not nice to step on bugs without tiptoeing around death and it’s become tiresome for both your dad and I to carefully gloss over parents dying in Disney films.
We snuggle up in the big armchair in our living room. It’s one of my favorite places in the house because you both fit perfectly snug on my lap. I tell you that today your Daddy is very sad and while he is skating, I would like to make a card for him to help him feel better. But first we have to talk. I tell you both that today is your uncle Dalton’s birthday. You and Lo get excited because you love parties. I point out Dalton’s picture on the wall. I explain that we won’t get to celebrate with Dalton because two years ago, Dalton died and that is very sad. It makes Daddy especially sad. “Dying,” I say, “means that someone’s body stops working. They can’t eat or talk and we can’t see or play with them anymore. Dying is permanent. Once a person dies, it can’t change.”
I read something like this on a parenting website. But still, it feels cold and heartless. Even as an adult, I’ll admit I have not heard death talked about so matter of factly. Personally, I think when someone dies they become a star. Your dad and I have said this to you before and one day maybe I will write a letter about the science and spirituality of that. But today, I was nervous if I said that Dalton was a star, that you would find that “cool” and say “I hope I can be a star”. I told you and your sister about death in such a literal sense because I was so scared that if I said something flowery like “he’s in a better place,” or “God liked him so much, he took him early” that you might be confused. Or scared. I was scared you might end up awake in bed nervous that you too could die any minute.
You listen as I say that Daddy will need extra hugs and kisses and lots of love. I say that although Dad is noticeably sad today, sometimes on days other than Dalton’s birthday, Dad also might feel sadness. “Humans are complicated and life is complicated and sometimes, it is very hard to explain or understand.” I hope that you don’t ask me to elaborate. You don’t but I can see what’s about to happen. Your little mouth forms a slow frown and I can see the tears well up in your eyes.
I pet your hair and ask you what’s wrong. “My sad cause Daddy sad” you say. You replace every “I” in your vocabulary with “My” and although your dad is trying, you don’t seem to want to make any effort to change that. I hug you and rock you for a long minute and say that I am also sad because Daddy is sad. I tell you that a good way to feel better is to talk about Dalton and listen to Daddy tell us stories about Dalton.
Dalton was the first one of your uncles to take you skateboarding, when you were so small you couldn’t even walk yet. We went to the park with Dad while he and Dalton skated and when they were finished, they came and got you, still in your car seat. They pushed you around the park, your car seat on Daddy’s skateboard. Then, Dalton and Daddy took you out and stood you up, holding you by your arms and wheeled you back and forth, back and forth.
You smile at this story and want to hear more. You love stories. I wish I had a better memory or paid more attention to things around me that way you do. I tell you that Dalton loved Harry Potter and of course you have no idea what that is. We look at pictures of Harry Potter on my phone and I ask if you would like to watch that movie with Dad gets home. I wish your dad was home to give you more of the stories you want.
The tears are drying on your cheeks but are still incredibly obvious. “This is a really hard talk for Mommy to have and I know it is a lot for you too. Mommy and Daddy are here for you though, to give you hugs and snuggles and answer any questions you have. Do you have any questions?” Lola says no and so do you but I can see the tears forming all over again. “My think my need a card like Daddy to make me feel better too.”
We trace your and Lo’s hands on gold paper and I cut out the shape. I fold another sheet and glue on your hands so the card looks like a “hug.” Not going to lie, it seems pretty mediocre and elementary after the heavy talk we just had. You both run off to play and I’m immensely grateful kids rebound so fast. Originally I planned to have you guys more involved in the card, tracing the letters and such, but instead I am selfish and use the card as a way to get my mind off of possibly having just created morbid children preoccupied with death.
I call you back to place heart stickers on the front and ask you what you would like to write in your dad’s card. You ask me to write “Don’t be sad Daddy”, “My happy you’re my dad” and “My sad too and my can talk if you want to”.
When Daddy comes home you run to him with card and point blank say “we made this cause you’re sad your friend died.” Your dad bursts into tears and hugs each of us long and hard. I am uncomfortable and awkward and I apologize. He says “No, I am crying because all of you are so amazing, and it’s a different feeling to hear someone say it like that. I needed that. It’s just so heartbreaking that we have to explain this to our kids.” You don’t apologize to your dad or try to get him to stop crying. You just hug him and say “my sad too”. Which is exactly what he needs.
My heart is so full to have someone so thoughtful and caring as you in my life. I wrote about your empathy in your hug card but I want to write it here too:
Your compassion is going to change the world. You are so perceptive and pick up on the smallest change in someone’s mood. Not only that, but you are mindful of yourself. You have the capacity to wake up grumpy and say “My having a hard day.” I’m 28 years old and have yet to figure that out. I wrote this letter because I want to recognize that sensitivity that is hardwired into you and shout about it. Someday someone or something will make you feel like it’s cool to be “hard” or it’s lame to be “tenderhearted.” Don’t listen. You care about people and that is an indispensable trait. I am so proud to be your mother and so lucky to have you in my life. You inspire me, literally EVERY SINGLE DAY. I know in my heart that you will inspire so many others too.
Your dad and I ended our vows talking about believing in one another and how much more we could accomplish together vs. alone. Now we have you two and that feeling is exponentially bigger. Not only are we better with you, but the world is better off now that you are here. So from now on, when I write these letters to you and your sister, I will end with this:
You are loved. You are important. I believe in you.