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Sunday Journal

Coiling the ties that bind

Published January 29, 2006

"How long will Sean be gone?" I ask my daughter-in-law Becca. Sean, my son, is out of town on business.

"Saturday morning," she says. "Yesterday when we got home, Rhys said, "Poppa? Poppa home?' And I had to tell him, no, that Poppa would be gone for three more days. He asked for him again this morning."

My stomach twists when Becca tells me about Rhys asking for his dad. When Sean was a little over 2, Rhys' current age, his dad, my husband, Don, died of a heart attack. After the tumult of Don's funeral, my reduced family of older daughter, son, Sean and I got back into a routine of sorts. Around 5:30 each afternoon, Sean would toddle into the kitchen where I was busy with dinner preparations. "Daddy?" he would say, his sweet face looking up at me, a slight frown between his blond brows. "Daddy at factory? Daddy come home?"

The first time he asked, I felt my breath taken away. I yearned to be in his high-topped shoes, to not understand that Daddy would not be coming home again.

When talking to my children, I refused euphemisms for what had happened to Don: God had not "taken Daddy away" (for what would a child think of a God who did that?), he hadn't "gone to sleep" (for then, wouldn't the child be afraid to go to sleep at night?).

What I'd told my older children, Noelle, 8, and Keith, 51/2, was the truth: Their father had gotten sick, and the doctors couldn't make him well. The first time 2-year-old Sean asked about his daddy coming home, I knelt down at his side and said Daddy couldn't come home because he was dead. As I said it, I knew the words meant nothing to my small son. For a few weeks his asking and my responding became an evening ritual. Busy at the sink or stove, I'd hear the tap tap tap of his shoes on the kitchen floor.

"Daddy? Daddy at factory? Daddy come home?"

"No, sweetheart, Daddy can't come home," I'd say. "I'm sorry. Daddy's dead."

I'd give him a hug and then he'd run off to play.

Some days I'd cry as I held him. Some days I hugged him so tight he squirmed to get free. Over time I recognized that I needed to say the words for myself, to remind myself that Don would never come home again. At some point, I don't remember when - so much of that time became a blur - Sean quit running into the kitchen at dinnertime, quit asking when Daddy would be home. I can't say which was more wrenching, his asking, or his ceasing to ask.

One night about four months after Don's death, I heard Noelle crying in bed. "Noelle, what's wrong?" I asked, sitting on the side of her bed.

"Can he come back?" she asked through her sobs. "Have we been good long enough?"

"Oh, sweetheart," I said, gathering her into my arms, her small body shaking against my chest. "It has nothing to do with our being good enough. We didn't make Daddy die. He didn't die because we did anything wrong. You didn't do anything wrong."

"But it's so hard," she said. "Can't it be over?"

"I wish it could," I said through the aching lump in my throat. "That's what's so awful about death. The person's gone forever."

My responses to my children, as honest as I could manage, forced me to articulate what Don's death meant for each of us.

When my daughter-in-law Becca relayed Rhys' asking for Sean, paranoia came to visit again, the paranoia I'd experienced after Don's death: If he could die, anything could happen.

I worried about sending the kids off to school: suppose they were kidnapped? Other times, I considered us untouchable: Hadn't the worst already happened? I didn't entertain that thought long, for fear of tempting the gods.

Of course anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. So during that week Sean was traveling, I prayed for his safety, so Rhys could stop asking that question, so Becca would have a definite day when Poppa would be home.

The phone rings Saturday morning: Sean, telling me he's home. "I went by Dad's grave," he says. "I left pictures of Gillie and Rhys at the grave."

"You did?" The last time I'd visited where we used to live I'd not gone to the grave. I didn't need to anymore.

"Yeah," he says. "I told Dad, these are your grandchildren. I know the wind will blow the pictures away, so I wrapped them in plastic."

"You're so good with rituals, Sean."

I don't say, from the time you were 2 years old.

- Valerie Borders is a freelance writer who lives in Baton Rouge, La.

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 13:04:03]

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