Emma's dance teacher asked me about Emma this weekend via email. She said Emma seems a little withdrawn and, knowing what's going on with us she just wanted to see if there was anything she could do to help and ask if Emma was okay. Essentially, when she (or anyone who isn't personally close with Emma) asked if Emma was okay, Emma would say she was "fine" which makes sense. And she recognized that since she wasn't in Emma's circle of trust that fine might range from "holding on by the skin of my teeth" to ..."fine".
I answered her email and then spoke to Emma the next day as we were driving over to my folks' house to eat.
Leslie was very active with dance. She was a "dance mom" and she took great pride in being a dance mom. She liked being able to provide help to Emma by way of what dance experience she had (point your toes, your facial expression is flat, you need to work on your flexibility, etc.) and Emma took her instruction well. During recitals she was hyper active, doing buns for the girls, makeup, helping with costume changes. She was a fixture.
And it's that time of year. The recitals are coming up and Leslie's not here.
I explained to her dance teacher that Emma has been amazing throughout this, but that I sometimes think it's the big things...the huge events (funeral, viewing, Lily's communion) that we are so prepared for, we shine. We KNOW it's traumatic. We KNOW it's sad. We KNOW this is forever. And it sucks, but we know it, and we need to get through it so we can start rebuilding our lives. But this ...piddly little shit...man, it hits you out of left field. And she's struggling.
So I asked her how she was doing with dance, and she said, "Oh, I'm good!" so glibbly that I knew she hadn't understood me, so I asked again, "No, Em, I mean...how are you doing with mommy not being here for dance?" And the car got very quiet and Emma started to cry.
Enough time passed that I asked, "Are you thinking about it?" And she nodded.
Emma is struggling with her mom not being around. Something that exacerbates it is that most of Emma's dance friends' moms are exactly the same way with their kids as Leslie was with Emma, and their presence in their daughters planning and practice magnifies Leslie's absence.
We talked a little bit about how the little things, not the big things, seem to be hardest to handle, but I didn't have any answers for her, and some of the things we talked about, that I won't share here...at least not in this post, are things I don't have helpful, practical answers for.
That night Emma broke a glass at my folks' house that she wouldn't have broken if she'd listened to what I'd told her, and I yelled and then later made peace with her, but later at bedtime, Emma struggled to sleep. She always struggles to sleep when she thinks about Leslie.
She came downstairs as I folded the remaining laundry. (I gave it every opportunity to fold itself, I swear I did, but at 11:30 I finally took matters into my own hands). I turned on some soft music and covered her in a blanket while I worked, and then talked to her a little bit. I explained my problem.
I think I've talked about this in the blog before, but essentially, when I think about all the things Leslie will never see or do, I am incredibly sad. Seriously, even typing that out makes my eyes fill, and I haven't even THOUGHT of anything in particular, just the concept of her not being there. And what I said was, when I start doing that, it almost feels like self-pity, and so I trigger myself and change the direction of my thoughts toward things Leslie DID do with us. And even though it's still sad, it's a bittersweet sort of sad. Happy memories made sorrowful by circumstance.
When I asked Emma whether she was thinking about happy memories or the future, she told me that she'd been thinking about the recital and vacation and that when she'd realized it, she tried thinking happy thoughts instead and she just couldn't sleep.
And the immediate thing that came to mind was, "Try not to think about your mother." But I didn't say that, because that feels...wrong. It feels unhealthy. It feels like avoidance and compartmentalization. So I told her that. I told her that I don't want her to avoid thinking about her mom, even though it makes it hard for her to sleep, but that I knew her mom would want her to be able to sleep, so if she was able to channel her thoughts toward something else at bedtime, to carve out some time during the day, maybe after school, to just think about her mother and be sad...or happy.
She said, "I talked to mommy. She was with Pup-pup (Leslie's mom's father)."
I said, in an attempt to be amusing, "Was he his usual grumpy self?"
"No...he was happy...because he's finally with his wife (who died of cancer, he was never really the same afterwards, Leslie said)."
And I finished folding laundry and took her upstairs and got into bed with her and rubbed her hair and stroked her arm until I started to nod off. And then I told her I loved her always and forever, and she eventually fell asleep.
And maybe that IS the right advice. Think about your mother. But try to channel your thoughts toward other things until it's not counter-productive to think about her. That seems cold and clinical. I don't mean it to be. I mean...I want her to think about her mom, but I want her to set aside time to do it. And maybe I even send her outside to our makeshift memorial after school...a not-chore...but "did you feed the cat? do your homework? talk to mommy?" I'm not sure.
But Emma's science grade dropped dramatically this past quarter. I talked to her about needing her to not use her time in school to focus on her grief. I told her (I swear it was very supportive) that we need to use thoughts of mommy as a source of inspiration, not of giving up. I went on to explain what a fighter mommy was, and that if she found herself thinking about mommy during science, then maybe she needed to think about what it was that mommy would be telling her about school..."Be strong, Emma. Do your best, baby. Show them your teeth. Show them your fight. Don't let my death inspire you to give up. Let it straighten your spine. You're my daughter. Show them the daughter of a fighter is a fighter too."
And I looked around my bedroom. I've been doing really well. I don't really cry. I'm not typically sad. I've got this grieving thing nailed! Except...except that as I looked around the bedroom I started to focus on what was there on Leslie's dresser, on the floor, in the closet, on her nightstand. The clutter that would ordinarily have driven Leslie AND me insane remains untouched. Medical supplies and bills, get well cards, prayers, gifts, snacks, People magazines to occupy time during hospital stays. It's a mess. And I haven't touched it. Or looked at it. In two months.
And it occurred to me that yeah...I'm doing awesome...because I'm not really allowing myself to think about Leslie or about the tasks ahead. I'm avoiding it and compartmentalizing it in the exact way that I found myself almost suggesting, but then rejecting when I spoke to Emma, because I knew it wasn't the right answer. And when my gaze lingers too long on her dresser...I shut that line of thought down, and that can't be right.
I'm not even talking about the really hard bit of this...when I eventually start cleaning OUT the dresser. When I start giving clothes to Goodwill. When I start giving Leslie's jewelry to the kids. When I try to figure out what to do with all the Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and Birthday and Anniversary cards and pictures that that woman ferreted away in each and every drawer of each and every bureau, nightstand, dresser, or desk...instant shut down.
I need to find a way to start processing Leslie's death. And maybe that means taking a break from the treadmill or guitar that I use to fill the silence of the house when the kids fall asleep. Maybe it means confronting Leslie's ghost myself when it's productive to do so. Maybe it means cleaning the dresser, even if it's bit by bit over many long sad nights, letting myself think about Leslie and using her voice in my head to focus on doing something positive instead of avoiding or compartmentalizing.
I know what she'd tell me if she was healthy.
"This house is a fucking mess. You need to start cleaning up."