Last week Eva's cousin T, who was seven months old, died in her sleep. Eva's mom called to let me know, and I could tell she'd been repeating the news a lot. She had the kind of dull thud to her voice that sits just outside of grief -- a sort of fuzzy autopilot that flutters into gear in the wake of necessity.
Eva was in my first grade class five years ago. Every kid in that class is uniquely close to my heart, if only because I have not openly cried so much in front of anyone as I have in front of every single person in that room. But I have always felt admittedly closest to Eva. Her coping mechanisms remind me a lot of my own, and so since the day I met her I've wanted desperately to protect her.
To this day, I generally go to Eva's house in the east every weekend and spend some time with her family, and then I take her on the kind of outing I would have liked to go on at that age -- shopping for jewel-toned art supplies, or making cookies while watching movies that come in purple covers and feature really skinny princesses. I think a lot about the kind of pain I felt when I was young, and then secretly hope that I can keep Eva from feeling it through sheer will power and mint chocolate chip ice cream cones.
I remember when Eva's cousin T was born. There was a big "Princess and the Frog"-themed celebration, and the whole family gathered and ate chicken and rice. This is the kind of family where a cousin is not unlike a sister, because everyone spends a lot of time together. T's mom lived across the street from Eva's mom. The tragedy hit close to a lot of homes.
When I went to get Eva this weekend, there was a heavy fog around the house. Eva's mom looked beautiful, as she always does, but you could tell she'd been crying. I had no idea what to say to her. What do you say to someone who is deep inside a loss? When I am inside one, I just want to be left alone. I wanted to hug her, or buy her a family pack of Cheet-os, or offer to wash her car or something, but all that seemed overwrought and incorrect. I ended up just saying, "I'm terribly sorry for your loss," like they do in movies, like I felt I was supposed to. "Thank you," Eva's mom said. It was the autopilot voice again. She looked at me like she was trying to see something through a murky window.
But Eva didn't seem sad when she got into my car. She showed me the charm bracelet everyone had been given at T's funeral. She cheerfully told me about the funny things T used to do, and added, "Of course, she was just a baby, so mostly it was just peeing and pooping." Then she laughed wildly because at nine, you're still allowed to think "peeing and pooping" is Louis-C.K.-level hilarious.
I listened politely, and desperately racked my brain for the follow-up questions I'd learned in grief counseling workshops you're supposed to ask in order to appear empathic. "And how did that make you feel?" "What do you think about that?" "Why is that the case, in your opinion?"
Eva was talking very quickly and incessantly, so I didn't get a chance. Instead, she asked me, "Hey, Ms. Johnson, where do people go when they die?"
Oh God. What would Eva's mom want me to say to her? I didn't want to say the wrong thing here. You never want to accidentally indoctrinate children with your weird left-wing atheist values when your intention was just to take them to see "The Lego Movie."
"Um, well, I guess they uh, they go to heaven. Don't they?"
Eva looked at me like I'd just thrown up after promising I wasn't going to get sick.
"No," she said, "I want to know where YOU think people go." How had this kid gotten so smart? It was annoying.
"I guess..." I paused. I don't know where people go when they die. No one does. That's the nature of death. I am pretty sure they don't go to heaven, or to hell, or to any other place dreamed up by human beings. I thought about this book I used to read to my class called "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney." It's about a boy whose cat dies, and his father buries him in the yard. Later, the boy is helping his father garden, and his father talks about how things grow and change in the ground; the boy asks if Barney will change too. The boy's father says that yes, Barney will change. He will help the flowers grow. That's the closest I've ever come to understanding anything about death.
"I guess I don't know," I said. And that's when Eva looked sad. She looked out the window. She seemed impossibly small.
I thought about how badly I'd wanted to protect Eva from everything sad and heavy in the universe. How I didn't want her to experience any of the pain I had; how I had wished I could make a cloak to throw over her shoulders that would keep the ugly dark things out.
And watching her stare out the window on Saturday was when that changed.
Life is sometimes ugly. Sometimes people are cruel, and the elements of nature and time are wholly merciless. Nothing can save you from that. There is no magic cloak that anyone can make for you that will keep your heart from breaking. It doesn't exist.
We can build all the heavens we want, to soften things, to make them seem less scary. Or, we can teach our children that grieving is a part of living; suffering is a part of being; ugliness is a prerequisite to beauty. And after all that, things will change. That's the only thing we can really be sure of.
I bought Eva an ice cream cone and let her get two scoops. I said, "There are some things in life that merit two scoops of ice cream." She said, "Yeah. That makes sense."