“…and now I can hear Dad crying in the shower so I put my purple fleece over my head and close my eyes and plug my ears and with my elbows I squeeze my Dictionary tight against my chest.”
I stopped reading and sat quietly for a minute. The Bear snuggled deeper into my shoulder and I could feel the warmth of her breath against my neck.
This book. It’s good for us to read together, to share. It’s hard, too, because on each page I see some of the story of our past year, through the eyes of a young autistic girl – a girl very much like my beautiful Bear. A girl dealing with a devastating loss, and trying to find closure and empathy, and struggling to understand the adults around her.
I whispered hesitant words into the stillness. “Did you know I did that? Cried in the shower?”
A look of surprise crossed her face. “You did?”
“Oh. I just thought you were taking a shower.” Then puzzled. “Why did you cry in the shower, Mama?”
“I was so sad, Little Bear. I miss Daddy so much, but I didn’t want you to see me that sad all the time. It was so hard last summer, baby girl, so hard. So if I needed to cry, I cried in the shower so you’d only hear the water splashing…not me.”
We sat quiet, then she offered, “Sometimes when you cried, I didn’t know what to do. I thought you might be mad at me if you saw me playing toys, so I just tried to hide in my room, but it was boring by myself. And…you yelled at me in June when upstairs was messy.”
“Yeah, I did.” Remembering last summer is hard, but I couldn’t cut her off, not when she needed to talk. The book was giving us the starting point we needed, a touchstone for our shared grief. I continued carefully. “I did…and I’m so sorry. Being without Daddy was – is – so hard, baby girl. I didn’t know how I could be without him and I was afraid. I think sometimes when people are afraid, they get mad and yell.”
She nodded thoughtfully. I’d asked forgiveness for that incident a thousand times from my beautiful girl and she’d given it so sweetly, tenfold. There were no hard feelings on her part, but plenty of guilt remained on mine. “I should’ve tried harder, baby girl, to not be so sad. But we made it, didn’t we? Things are better now, right?”
She nodded her head again. “Yeah, but that’s the part kids don’t really get, I think. I mean, I get that Daddy died and he can’t come back, and I miss him, too, but I don’t get why adults get so sad. I think it’s because you’re paddling too hard.”
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. “Paddling too hard? What do you mean?”
Her explanation floored me. “Well, Mama, it’s like being sad is water and you’re trying to paddle too hard against it, but you should just float in it, like I do. When you float, it’s more peaceful and eventually, you know, it’s happy.”
I pulled her close. “How’d you get so smart, little girl?” She giggled, “I don’t know, Mama. I guess things make more sense to kids sometimes.”
She’s right. I’ve been paddling hard. Very hard. I look back at the days we struggled through, the days I still struggle through. The days I was so sad, so afraid, so lost. The days I tried so very hard to figure out what to do next, how to go on without Kevin when all I wanted was to have him back. I paddled so hard, and it wore me down and wore me out and I cried in the shower and I yelled over stupid stuff and no matter how hard I paddled, I drowned in the waves of grief that relentlessly pulled me under.
And my girl was just as sad, and just as lost. She’s had incredibly hard days of grief. But she stuck by me, came to me for hugs and offered them back, not exactly grasping the depths of my grief, but understanding I needed comforting. And she kept on living. She chased puffs of clouds that Daddy threw down, and squeezed the tail of the cat Daddy sent, and threw caution to the wind in a game of math dice. She worked with her grief therapist, figuring out how to keep the best parts of Daddy alive and how to accept that it was okay for me to be sad. She kept on finding joy around every curve, secure in the knowledge that her Daddy loves her and wants her to be happy and have fun.
I didn’t make it easy on her. My thrashing about in the sad water sent massive waves rocking downstream, upsetting the happy peace she floated toward. But she did it, anyway. She kept floating.
Silence settled across the house as I held her sprawled across my lap, Kevin’s recliner hugging us. I didn’t hustle her off to bed so I could cram in a few hours of work before my bleary eyes crossed and I crumpled into bed. I just held my girl and listened to her breathe. Listened to the house breathe. Listened to myself – for the first time in a long time – just breathe.
No worrying, no crying, no thinking. Just breathing.
This is what it feels like, I realized. To float.
It wasn’t exactly the peace my girl described. Not for me; not yet, anyway. My grief is still too fresh. But in that moment, I felt something release. I felt God’s assurance: “If you stop paddling, I promise you’ll float…not drown.”
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
Sitting there, holding my incredibly wise little girl, I felt the possibility of peace – and that’s something I need.
I stopped paddling so fiercely.
For just a moment…then a moment more…I floated.
(Excerpt from Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine)