My daughter's preschool teacher died and I couldn't get myself to tell her. When I finally did, it was too late. A classmate told her and she was angry that it didn't come from me. By attempting to shelter her, I caused her more pain.
Our experiences, especially difficult ones, are lessons that help us successfully cope with life's challenges. Knowing this, I still find it difficult to refrain from sheltering my children.
My daughter Anna cried hysterically the first day of 3-year-old preschool. It was dramatic, a performance worthy of an Academy Award, only she wasn't acting. Her face turned deep red, her cheeks swelled from the torrential rain of tears, and her chest heaved with each wail. I felt guilty leaving her but I would have felt worse taking her home. She needed to overcome her separation anxiety and the only way to do that was to experience it.
Her teacher, Mrs. Cherie, held her in a tight embrace and motioned for me to leave. I walked briskly through the halls. Sunshine poured through the windows. The air smelled like Play-Doh and I could hear the muffled, happy chatter of little ones excited about their day.
Anna's crying only lasted a few minutes, I later learned. Everything changed when she went to music. She spoke often of her music teacher, Mrs. Frasier, who also happened to teach gym. Anna would spontaneously sing her songs and giggle to me about something funny they did together in class.
I met Mrs. Frasier in passing one day. I noticed something about her face. It was wholesome. To me, it was the face of someone with a gentle heart.
When I later learned that Mrs. Frasier was suffering from a rare form of cancer and had a short time to live, I sent her a thank you note along with a picture of Anna. I knew it was late, but I wanted her to know how special she was to my daughter and that we were grateful. I wasn't sure she received it until the day of her funeral.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and school was closed. While we headed to our morning activity, Anna was singing with all her heart as a hearse slowly passed our car. In that instance, I imagined Mrs. Frasier saying goodbye to her. "I got your card, Anna, and you were special to me, too."
I started to scan the funeral procession, which spanned at least a mile. When I spotted Mrs. Cherie, I let out an uncontrollable wail. My daughter stopped singing and asked me why I was crying. I insisted that I was fine. She didn't believe me. I swallowed, put a smile in my voice and acted excited about the day ahead of us. I didn't want my 5-year-old daughter to grieve.
It was a mistake because some of the other parents brought their children to the wake and talked to them about death. She later found out from them, not me, and that made her angry.
"Mama, Ali told me that Mrs. Frasier died. Is it true?" She looked at me accusingly. My initial reaction was silence. "She saw her in the box and there were lots of people there," she said, so quickly and nervously that she had to catch her breath. She gritted her teeth in anger and demanded again, "Is it true?" I choked on my tears. "Yes, it is true." My daughter bowed her head in grief and then seemed to recover quickly.
The subject came up again at bedtime. "Why did Mrs. Frasier die?" I explained that it's not possible to live forever. "She's probably an angel up in heaven," I told her. "Then I want to visit her," she countered. A smile emerged on her face, as if she had come up with a solution.
"We cannot visit Mrs. Frasier," I said firmly, feeling guilty that I could not find the right words to make it all better. Then I remembered a children's book I gave my niece when my grandmother died. It explained that when a loved one dies, they are never truly gone because they live on in your memories. Those were the words I chose to tell my daughter.
Anna went to sleep that night with a broken heart. I mourned, too, for the loss of her childhood and my inability to shelter her from grief. Nothing I could say or do would take away her pain. She would need time, or so I thought, but the week that began with death ended with birth.
We were at the hospital cafeteria, buying ice cream after a difficult doctor's appointment, when Brahm's Lullaby came through the intercom system. "Why the music?" I asked the cashier, even though I knew the answer. "A baby was born, of course." We smiled at each other. At the same time, I felt like crying. Anna wondered out loud, "Could that baby be Mrs. Frasier?" I told her the truth. "I don't know." She skipped out of the cafeteria and stopped at the chapel. "I would pray for Mrs. Frasier," she told me. "That's nice," I said, as I watched her skip down the corridor to the exit.
She knew the way, without any help from me.