I have been dreading this moment all day -- this moment when I have to tell TK that our 46-year-old friend and neighbor -- and a father figure for TK -- has died suddenly in a running accident. My own sadness weighs me down; waves of horror at the randomness -- the unfairness -- of it all pummel me again and again. I feel nauseated.
I'm distracted as she chatters about her day in the pre-K room at Gold Creek -- who she played with, a silly story about the playground. Always, she asks me about my day. Always, she asks some specific question, like an adult would do: "What did a student do that was funny, Mommy?" She skips beside me, listening as I talk.
I can't bring myself to tell her the awful news I am carrying.
Finally, I stop in the middle of the sidewalk. I get down at her level; I look her in the eyes. "I have something sad to tell you. . ." I begin. And when I have told her, her deep brown eyes widen and then she murmurs, "That IS sad." I watch her, waiting for the cry of grief and anger that gripped me when I heard the news. But instead, Mitike furrows her little brow and straightens her back, and pulls from Greek mythology: "Who will go to the Underworld to get him?"
I love her. I love that she is nearly four and can barely understand the difference between imaginative story and reality. I love that -- if it were possible to trace Orpheus' path -- TK would volunteer the two of us in a moment. I gather her into my arms and murmur something about mythology and how our friend is actually, really gone.
None of us can comprehend that. The grown-ups in TK's life wander blindly through their days, stunned. Someone healthy -- and that GOOD -- can just. . .die? Someone with two young children, someone who was working to conserve forests, someone who was a good and kind neighbor and friend and father to everyone he met? Gone?
On the second day after we hear the news, TK's questions turn to the literal: Where is his body? Who will bury his body? What will happen to his body? I find these questions painful to answer, and I don't understand why. I grieve.
On the third day, TK calls from her perch on the potty in a restaurant bathroom stall, "Mommy, is he with Jesus?" I have no idea where she's heard that idea, though she claims she heard it from Nana.
"Some people believe that," I say, nodding.
"Do YOU believe that?" she asks, wrapping toilet paper around and around her little hand.
"I'm not sure," I answer.
"Is Jesus in the Underworld?" she asks.
On the fourth day, we discover our pet hamster has died. Normally, Katie and TK would be devastated; in context, the hamster seems even to them like a mere small animal -- and an old one, at that. I break the news to TK as we walk home from school, and she raises her arms to be lifted up. She's silent for a moment, gazing up at the mountains and the spruce and hemlock forests. "Mommy," she murmurs, "EVERYTHING dies." I hold her close, the tears rising in my eyes. "EVERYTHING. Even the trees."
Our friend worked to conserve trees. I've just written a poem about him in which I compared him to a rare yellow cedar tree. Tears begin to roll down my cheeks.
"Even the trees die, Mommy," TK murmurs again.
She doesn't ask more questions after that. She takes action, as only a nearly-four-year-old can take action. When our friend's 2-year-old son arrives in our house, TK wraps him in her small arms and good-naturedly vrooms his truck back and forth across the carpet with him, though she does not normally play with construction equipment. She works hard to make her little friend laugh, and when he announces -- out of nowhere -- his dad's name, Mitike nods encouragingly. She knows, somehow, how to listen -- and how to be gentle -- and how to love.
The morning after the memorial service, I am sitting alone on the couch in our living room, sipping coffee and remembering -- especially the moment I chose to share at the memorial, the moment about our friend's family and our family camping on Eagle Beach and listening to the humpback whales singing beneath the water's surface. I close my eyes. Often, I repeat to myself, "GONE." I still can't understand the word.
Mitike emerges from her bedroom, Purple Bear clutched close to her chest with one hand, and Horton the Elephant swinging from the other. She climbs onto the couch and cuddles close to me.
"What did you dream about, sweet girl?" I ask her.
"Whales," she says sleepily. "They were singing, remember, Mommy?"
No one is ever gone completely. That's why we hold our memories so tightly; that's why we tell stories, again and again. I do not know where our friend is -- but I believe in the human soul existing beyond our human bodies. Whales singing.
I know that we are not the only ones to have lost someone. I know he will not be the only one we lose. Already, in Mitike's little life, our friend is one among many who have died, including her birth mother -- he is just the first in her memory.
I am afraid of such a random, raw world. I am afraid of the finality of death. I am terrified to lose what I love.
TK cuddles closer, and I wrap my arms around her. "We just have to love each other and LOVE each other," she announces.
And so we do. Oh, we do.