I'll call him Buddy and I'll call her Sweetie which are not their names but do fit their young eagerness to please. Not a negative word or bit of trouble the entire three days from these two children who played Legos and Sharks and Minnows and "What Does The Ringmaster At The Tiny Circus Say?" with my girls. Considering the upset and violent change so far in their young lives, their compliancy may be how they cope with new situations right now. Roll with the punches. Wait and see. Trust the big people.
"When was the first time we met you?" Mia asked the kids and I cringe because I suspect the painful place this is going. We're on our way to a doll store, to have a dinner in a pretty pink room with black accents, an early birthday gift for Sweetie.
"We went camping a few years ago," I say, my eyes on the road. "Buddy, your dad made the best potatoes. And his grilled salmon! So good!"
I'm trying to bypass the pain, instead of crash into it.
"When was the next time after that?" presses on Nora, despite my attempt to keep us in the woods.
"It was at that place, after your dad died."
"Beggar's Pizza," says Buddy. He knows.
"I'm sorry your dad died," says my Nora, who is frightened by the awfulness of the possibility that such an unfathomable thing can happen. It is not the first time she has said this.
"If you stop talking about it, I won't feel sad about it," says Sweetie.
With no help from me, the conversation became something more for the benefit of my children than for this young girl, her tween brother. Words to help my children be able to walk up to the edge and peek over and turn back to me, rather than words that would comfort our friends.
Later, I would share some spontaneous memories that made the girl smile ("Did you know your mom played the theremin? It was beautiful, not just the way it sounded, but the way her hands moved over the machine..."), but the point of this visit wasn't Overt Healing and Therapeutic Talk -- I'm not qualified for that kind of thing.
I could tell them, "I lost my parents, too, when I was a kid," at that funeral luncheon at Beggar's Pizza, in sympathy, in reassurance, I hoped, that they were not alone, but I could not make myself say, "Everything is going to be alright." When I am with them, I can act like these words are true, but I don't like to say those words to these children, like a promise I cannot keep. Dear Hope Edelman asked the motherless daughters who read her blog to consider on Mother's Day a positive thing that had happened in their lives because of the deaths of their mothers; I love Hope and my life is full and happy, but I'm not to the point yet where this experiment does not feel wrong.
Here's what I can do. I can make some fun for the kids. I can do that. I can take them to the planetarium and the beaches and The Boring Store (a front for a Secret Agent store which is actually a front for a kids' writing center) where Buddy got an invisible ink kit and a clip-on bow tie for instant Secret Agent glamour! Buddy was smiling. He wore the bow tie to dinner at Ed Debevic's. We laughed a lot. Once we got the school business out of the way, that is.
Their uncle had his last court appearance to be appointed guardianship on a Thursday morning. Court was scheduled at the same time as registration for Buddy's middle school, so I took the boy and girl, while Randy (his assistant Lucy) watched (plied with candy, crayons and Photoshop) Mia and Nora at the office.
Registration for the middle school involved mostly waiting in a series of lines and filling out paperwork. This I could handle. I could do this.
Buddy's uncle had everything filled out and tucked into a clipboard, everything but the medical exam paperwork since he couldn't take the boy to a doctor until the guardianship gave him access to the kids' insurance - such is one small tangle in the knot of challenges falling down on this man who stepped up to take the children. Their uncle is a kind, hard-working guy, never married, who called on Thursday night to see how the kids were doing.
"I miss them!" he laughed. "It's so quiet here, I'm talking to the dog!"
And now he's facing the daunting prospect of raising on his own a boy on the edge of middle school dangers and a girl who asked me what a tampon was in the doll store bathroom.
Sweetie was pointing at the tampon dispenser on the wall. I flashed back to those times I had said to Randy, "What about when she gets her period!? How is her uncle going to handle it?"
In the bathroom, I told her, "It's something you need when you get a period once a month when you are a teenager and ready to have a baby."
Sweetie reached for the door.
"Okay, I want to go back to the table now."
"Do you want to see one? I have one in my purse."
"Okay, I'm going to the table now."
So I'm not great at this, at this new friendship, this partial substitute auntship, this part-time role model job. But I am trying and I am not afraid. The mountain of hurt in their lives does not scare me away and that is at least something.
Nora and Mia already know the words yoni and tampon and period and they already know how unhinged I can get the days before I get mine. They also know how to floss their teeth, something new, apparently, to the girl, who held the length of string gingerly at the ends and plucked it against her lip. That was a rough moment for me, at the end of the visit and the end of the night, when I was looking forward to everyone, including me, being asleep in bed. Realizing the endless details of girl care and comfort that this little one might need to figure out on her own, I set my jaw and flossed her teeth for her as gently as I could. This I could do for her, on this night.
That was challenging, but it wasn't the hardest moment - that was probably at registration, in the metal lined hallway of the middle school, seeing girls with their moms decorating their sixth grade lockers with wallpaper and tiny plastic chandeliers.
We had nothing to put in Buddy's locker when we found it, but we opened it anyway, me waxing all enthusiastic about how big it was and how close to his first class. I took the new combination lock out of its cardboard box and showed the boy how to turn it first to the right, then to the left all the way past the zero, then to the right again. He took it, wiggling around the digits and missing the mark. The lock refused to yield when he pulled up on the loop. He tried again, starting with a turn to the left.
"Okay, let's clear it again," I said. "And turn to the right."
I point to the right. He turned the opposite way.
"So, okay, let's clear it again, spin it a few times. And find 21 to the right."
He did it. After three failed tries, he did it. He would need more practice. His uncle would need to help him.
I have tried hating Buddy and Sweetie's parents for dying and leaving them. I tried hating Heroin, the idea of it, tried hating the addictions that killed their parents in two separate, excruciatingly separate, deaths. I have felt the beginning of a flame of rage in my gut, tried blowing on the coals, hating them and the drug the way I hate smokers who walk through crowds swinging their lit sticks at the level of my children's eyes. But I can't get the fire to catch. It's like hating a god that isn't there. Or hating an airplane, or its pilot. Or a car. Or its driver.
Nora reads out the loud the conversation starter from the little striped box on the table at the doll store restaurant. "What's the biggest surprise you ever had?" Another possible landmine of awful memory, but the children sidestep it lightly, Buddy answering with a Christmas he received a video game, Sweetie telling us a funny story about the dog. I think they have compartmentalized the deaths, put them away from their real lives, until they will be old enough to decide whether they will be defined by them. I am grateful for the lesson these children offer me.