We had an unexpected conversation this morning in our house. Thinking about it now, I should’ve seen it coming and been prepared; after all, my daughter has a history of asking very pertinent questions about deep subjects at inopportune times. But I was actively trying not to think about the topic of her question this morning, and so I was utterly unprepared.
She was puttering around in her playroom, working at her art desk, pulling out an old stuffed animal that hadn’t seen the light of day in months. Suddenly she disappeared into my bedroom, and I heard the rustle of tissue paper and some sort of papery flapping sound; the next thing I knew she was standing in the kitchen holding a Hello Kitty gift bag up for Rachel and I to examine.
“It’s a birthday present for my sister,” she explained. “Today is Ruthanne’s birthday.”
I can say without reservation that my daughter has one of the most exceptional hearts that I’ve ever come across. While she can be a bit selfish at times, she also has a capacity for love and kindness that just floors me. I mean, she always wants to sit the villains in her Disney movies down so she can talk to them about choosing to be good. Kid just doesn’t seem wired for hate or cynicism or malice.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me that she would want to celebrate her sister’s birthday.
But it did. It took my breath away really. As I mentioned, I was trying not to think about it; I wanted to see if I could just go through the day normally, which is to say without dwelling on the loss of our first child, Ruthanne Camille Brooks. In fact, after a major breakthrough on the grief front last year (thanks to Ella and Jon), I was certain that this year would be different; that I would think of Ruthie only briefly, and without being consumed by emotion.
But there was Ella with a pink girlie gift bag, wanting to take it to her sister’s graveside.
“I’ll put it in front of the flowers you guys give her,” she said, cheerful.
Rachel and I told her that we hadn’t ordered Ruthie’s new flowers yet, but we were going to, and Ella could just hold on to her present until then.
“Okay. I’m giving her a card that I made for her and the Oopsy Bear that I don’t play with anymore.”
“That’s sweet,” Rachel said.
“How will she get it?” Ella asked.
“She won’t, sweetie,” I said. “But you can open the present up and show her the card and the bear, and she’ll see you from heaven.”
Ella paused. “Can she see me all the time?”
“Well,” I said, “the book of Hebrews says that we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on…”
Rachel cut me off. “No, honey. She can’t see you all the time. Only when God pulls back the clouds and let’s her look down. Most of the time, Ruthanne is focused on praising God.”
Ella looked at us for a second. I could see the confusion.
“Think of it this way, Ella: Ruthie is able to see you, but only on special occasions, only when God knows that we need the encouragement. So she doesn’t watch over you everyday; only on special days when you need her.”
Despite being theologically wobbly, that answer satisfied her and she skipped out of the kitchen with her gift bag in tow. I looked at Rachel.
“Didn’t expect that one.”
Rachel shook her head. “Me either.”
The next thing we knew, Jon came walking down the hallway with a gift bag of his own.
“Whatcha got there, bubba?” I asked.
“Issa gift for my sister,” he said. “Is for Roofann birfday.”
Ella stood behind him smiling.
I took them to her room and snapped a couple of pictures on my iPad. Instead of saying cheese, they kept saying “Happy birthday, Ruthanne!”
And instead of feeling my heart break, I felt happy. Joyful. Hopeful.
In eight years, I’ve learned that the death of a child, regardless of when it occurs, is a devastation unlike almost any other. It leaves a mark on your soul that doesn’t go away. It changes you.
But I’ve also learned that there is life after death, both in the Christian and metaphorical sense. It takes time to realize this, but eventually you do move forward, you do heal. You never forget; you never undo what happened; but you learn to give it the right place in your life.
And sometimes, when very special people come along who, in their innocence, want to celebrate the person you lost instead of the pain you got, you learn to live in ways you didn’t know were possible. You learn you can celebrate both the living and the dead, because that’s life.
But most of all, you remember that, one day, you’ll all be together again.