I love them like I know the loss of a child.
My nephew and his cancer battle come to me all the time. These memories form the hazy-dense under-writing on top of which the love of my children is written every day. But Erik and the loss of him comes never more directly than when I am putting my kids to sleep. They give themselves, body and soul, into my care in a way different than they do throughout the rest of the day. There’s a depth of trust maybe, something they have to cultivate, or remember, in the transition to sleep. Their bodies, when they fall asleep and become dead weight, are manipulable in a way that I still most deeply associate with my nephew’s body toward the end, when I helped reposition him, or move him from chair to bed, or from wheelchair to car seat for another trip to or from the hospital. Mostly he would only want my sister to do that; next after her, his papa. But I was the number three adult in line after them.
Once late at night, garrulous and chipper with painkillers following one of his surgeries, he told me I was the best auntie anybody could ever want to have. Morphine notwithstanding, I will never forget that.
Tonight I thought of my nephew when I was kissing my daughter’s head, cuddling in bed with her. Cuddling is the final step in a multi-step night time ritual that begins with books ‘n’ milk. After that comes the brushing of the teeth, then the telling of the story (always improv, usually featuring a giraffe named Girard, a monkey named Milton, a zebra named Zelda), then the singing of the lullaby. Finally, we put on the ever-durable Jane Siberry CD Hush.
Hereafter, all time is measured in songs. If Mama is at home, which these days she usually is, she gets to cuddle with the lil’ monkey during the first song. Then I get the second one. That’s usually. Her little brother’s falling asleep — or stalwart resistance to sleep — figures in, too; often one or another of us is occupied, rocking him to sleep. Sometimes too, if the girlie is feeling too Mama-starved, she’ll opt for Mama to cuddle with her for two songs. I defer, always, with no complaint. Though usually with a tiny, if familiar, pang.
But usually I get to cuddle on the second song. Which often blends well into the third. Not because I have trouble telling time — I do, but the beauty of the song-marked timeline is that there’s no mistaking a landmark. No, I usually cheat and snuggle a bit longer on purpose. The reason most visible at the surface is that Mama is the favored cuddlee in the morning, when the girlie wakes up, pads into our bedroom, and clambers into our bed.
There’s another, deeper reason I stretch the nighttime cuddling, though. At night, in the putting to sleep, is when I most acutely feel the brevity of this time with them. It’s not that I genuinely fear their lives will be shortened by an accident, or by a terminal illness, or worse, by an act of violence. A visceral part of me does fear that, sure, but most of me knows I have no idea. For all I know, they’ll both grow old. For all I know, I will too. For all I know, I’ll be a GrandBaba one day, telling off-color stories to their kids, complaining about my knee pain and confused by their technology.
At night, though, all other stimuli are dampened. Sound is gone — except for Jane Siberry’s voice. Light is gone — except for the twilit or night sky, outlining the palm and cedar trees out the window. All that’s left is the smell of my daughter’s hair, and the feeling of her wee shoulder muscles, or waist, under my lovey dovey hand. And the bittersweet taste of the brevity of it all.
I kiss and kiss and kiss her hairline at her temple, thinking: I know I will never be able to kiss her enough times in my lifetime. Then I think: this isn’t the first child I’ve thought this about. During my nephew’s illness, I would kiss him over and over again. So many times in a clump that I began to joke and count them out in tens. Much earlier, when he was a younger boy, I would kiss an injury of his, and ask how many this or that injury needed. How many kisses? Three? Five? Ten?
After his diagnosis the kisses took on a new meaning. Sometimes they were prompted by some hurt or another in him, but more often by a random burst of love on my part, and a desire to fill him with as much of it as I could while I could. I was stuffing his pockets for the journey. It became a thing between us, my peppering him with dozens of kisses at a time. Once on his dare, I kissed him a thousand times. Not kidding. We were both tired after that, but lord love me I kissed him a thousand times once.
I kiss my daughter’s temple tonight and I think of my nephew, and then at the speed of thought come further images: the last time I kissed my mother’s temple, and my nephew’s. In those moments, it was all too much, everything all around was all too much. Yet still I recognized those moments for what they were. Last touch. Last kiss. With both, too, I have an indellible memory of the last view of the mortician’s van as it drove down the same street. With my mom, they drove east. With my nephew, they drove west. Both times, though, it was night.
I kiss my daughter’s temple and think these thoughts, and — I swear, I’m not making this up; this is how everything is, all the time, whenever we take notice — the song “Pontchartrain” Â comes on, and I go back again to my association with the lake, then the image in my head of the mother and child, in a post-Katrina embrace. All what I wrote about before, in the wake of my dog’s death. Then I think about her, my dog companion. About how this past weekend we held another of our annual springtime puppet shows, a high-speed, three-act, sing-along version of The Sound of Music, compacted script courtesy my mother out-law, who departs just a hair from the original plot. My dog Max died in March last year, the week before when we were scheduled to have the show. We postponed it, and it welcomed not the spring, but the summer. March is when my nephew died, too, three years ago, and my sister has remarked more than once on the irony that when so many begin to celebrate renewal, she girds herself for the fiercest vertigo of loss.
On Sunday, before the puppet show began, I provided a little history about it, and what it means to us. A warm-spirited crowd of family and friends and friends of friends listened politely. For the many attending for the first time this year, I explained that we have been putting it on in our back yard annually for five years. With the exception of the second year, when the loss of my nephew heavied our hearts too much. And then a few years later, when my dog’s death postponed it. This is morbid stuff to include in a puppet show introduction, to be sure, and I thought twice about it. To some I must seem like Dickens’ character Miss Haversham, only instead of perennially wearing the wedding dress from the day I was jilted at the altar, I’m forever sporting my mourner’s black armband.
Years ago I put a black bow on a dried twig wreath, and hung it on one of those pink flamingo lawn decorations. Both wreath and flamingo are still there, porked into a potted plant, standing on the landing of the outdoor stairs leading to our garret apartment. I figure I’ll take the wreath down when I’m damn good and ready. If it takes as many years of Erik’s being gone as he was here, so be it. The truth is that, like the half-life of grief, both flamingo and wreath blended into the scenery long ago, legible now to only the most careful observer.
As I told the brief back story of our puppet shows to the friendly assembly, I would have elided a central truth about them and what they represent, were I to omit the fact that one simply didn’t happen, and another was postponed, all because of loss. We hatched the puppet show idea before our first child was born, dreaming sweetly of family tradition, of marking the seasons, of gathering together friends and family to celebrate and appreciate it all. I don’t think I conveyed it well enough in my puppet show intro, but the point is that the knowledge of loss is what makes us feel the depth of love. Winter’s what makes spring so sweet.
In the dark of our kids’ room, at the end of the song, I think my daughter’s asleep, and I move to get up.
“No, Baba,’she says, “stay to the end of the next song. Then go.” She clutches gently at the worn flannel shirt I have on, and the sandalwood prayer beads I have around my neck. She and I both know that when it comes to the boundary between cuddling more and leaving her to fall asleep, I am the lenient parent. Just like my beloved feared, before we set out on this journey. It’s just that before we became parents, we didn’t think about mortality so much. Not really. And certainly not of children.
I stay. But half-way through the song, though, the girlie is more asleep than not. I carefully pry her fingers off my necklace, and they fall and spread in a fan over her nose and mouth. I leave her like this, hoping the comforting scent of the sandalwood will accompany her into her deepest drifts of sleep.