By Ursula Hennessey
Walking home from school today, Clara pointed up to a blooming magnolia tree.
“That’s Grandma telling me she loves me,” she said matter-of-factly. “Every flower in the whole world tells me that, actually.”
I didn’t respond. I just enjoyed the peaceful feeling of knowing Clara is healing herself. Her grandmother, my mother-in-law, died last week, the day before Clara’s sixth birthday. Grief appears to be losing its grip on her. Six-year-olds are resilient that way, I guess.
Clara’s grandmother was given a diagnosis of leukemia about four weeks ago. Two weeks later, after a blast of chemotherapy didn’t work, she was sent to her home in New Jersey for her final days. She had 36 hours surrounded by her loving husband and four children.
I had taken Clara and her siblings to New Hampshire, where my parents live, so that Matthew could be with his immediate family in their shock and grief. We did not tell Clara how sick her grandmother was. Instead, I gently suggested she write more letters and draw some pictures. After I pressed her to finish one painting so I could send it, she slapped down her paintbrush and said, “Why are you making me do so many things for Grandma?” and marched away. I had to turn and hide my tears; if she knew how that sounded – in the truth of that moment in time – she’d be crushed.
That painting, and one from her sister, packaged along with an eight-years-too-late note from me about how much I appreciated her and the gift of my wonderful, thoughtful, perfectly raised husband, did not make it on time. Clara’s grandmother died the day it arrived in the mail.
Three days later, Matthew came up to New Hampshire to bring us all home and to tell Clara the news. We all dreaded it. We didn’t know how it would go down. Clara is remarkably, even frightfully, sensitive. But death … that’s a tough one. We prepared ourselves for dramatics, confusion, endless and annoying questions.
I left Matthew and Clara to talk the evening he arrived. I did not ask, and don’t need to know, the particulars of that conversation. Matthew just told me afterward that Clara cried out in sadness when he told her. When she regained her voice, she asked, “Does anyone else know?”
This led to a discussion of heaven and how people imagine it to be a kind of paradise. “But,” Matthew added, “no one knows exactly what it’s like.”
“If it’s so nice,” Clara wanted to know, “why does God keep it a secret?”
At the wake, we shielded Clara from the body. She was furious and felt betrayed. But we knew we’d made the right decision.
At the funeral, Clara was troubled by the casket – wooden, boxy, heavy – being carried by her father and her uncle. With a stricken face and red-rimmed eyes, she asked, in disbelief, “Is Grandma in there? Why can’t I see her?” It took consolation and distraction to get through the service.
Later, at the cemetery, Clara was panic-stricken when she saw the casket in a ring of blossoms on the dirt. “Does she have a pillow?” she wondered, pulling on my dress.
On the drive home to New York City, Clara and her siblings fell into a deep sleep, their blond heads flopping to the side and their tiny hands laying across each others’ laps. This was inevitable; they’d spent the past two days drinking in the attention of rarely seen relatives and witnessing the sobs of their parents.
As life returns to its regular routine, we find ourselves stumbling over words. “We’re going to Grandpa and…uh…Grandpa’s house.” Clara winces.
Our computer’s screensaver is a slide show of digital photos. Many are of Grandma. Clara’s eyes widen and her lips quiver when she sees them. So do Matthew’s. So do mine.
More than once she’s turned to us, her narrow face dark with sadness. “Grandma,” she pleads. “Grandma.”
But thank goodness for spring in New York. And our street, so dreary and depressing in winter, is canopied in blooms this April.
Nature, like a six-year-old, is resilient that way, I guess.