We asked Rebecca to sit with us on the half-couch situated against the short wall of the child psychologist’s small office. She clambered up into Kat’s lap, facing toward me, looking at me sidelong with her unique mixture of shyness and impishness. I was already having trouble drawing my breath, arrested by her affection for and trust in us, and pierced by the knowledge of what we were about to do to her.
“Honey, we want to talk to you about something.”
Her eyes dropped, her face melting to something wary and withdrawn. She knows, I thought. She knows, and we have to say it anyway.
“Remember the bad rock?” No expression on her now as she began to curl up, slowly, so slowly. “The tumor in your head that the doctors can’t take out? And you know how Mommy and Daddy have been looking for special medicine to make the bad rock go away?”
We waited for a nod, some signal that she understood. After a moment, her eyes darted to the side as if looking for escape routes.
“We haven’t been able to find special medicine, sweetie. We’re still looking, but we might not be able to find any.” Tears were streaming down Kat’s face. Down my face. I could barely see Rebecca’s face, she had lowered her head so far as she hunched forward, away from Kat, into the space between her parents.
In a small, choked voice: “Do you understand, honey?”
Her head nodded fractionally, spasmodically. And then her jaw started to quiver. Silent. Quivering more and more and her face twisting in anguish and then she started to wail. She collapsed backward into her mother’s embrace, still curled into a ball, crying desolately, hopelessly. Keening.
All three of us, sobbing and clinging to each other.
She had known ever since the tumors returned. She had expressed her fear in a few whispers, soothed by our reassurances that we were still looking for special medicine, and now she knew we were telling her she was going to die. She knew, and was terrified, curving her small body into a ball surrounding her pain as we tried to make a shield of our arms, futilely trying to protect her when the killer and the pain were already inside the shield. Inside her, where nobody could get it out. So our arms and bodies instead became a blanket inside which she could mourn her own life and try to cope with her terror of going away forever.
We wept what seemed like an endless ocean of suffering, but after a time, it started to ebb. We could speak again, barely, and thought she could hear us when we did. We had to ask her, even though we knew. Even though I would given much to never say or even hear what was coming next.
“Are you scared, Rebecca?”
A nod through tears, her jaw quivering again.
“Can you tell us what you’re scared of?”
She wept again, unable or unwilling to say the words. Kat and I choking on our pain and her pain as Rebecca sobbed with renewed terror, clinging to Kat and squeezing my hand in hers.
We asked her again, as gently as we could through our anguish. And again, later, when we had all recovered enough. And again.
Finally: “Baby, can you whisper it to one of us?”
She nodded, miserably.
“Who do you want to whisper it to?”
She pointed at Kat. Shifted her head up and around. Whispered, her voice so tiny and full of pain and fear and breaking into another wail: “Of dying.”
I will never know how long we wept with her. What we said to try to soothe her pain even a tiny bit. How we tried to comfort and protect her. I will always remember how utterly helpless and wounded and shattered I felt, the sick ache in the center of my chest.
Eventually the tears came to an end, as all things must. She hadn’t moved from her place, curled up against Kat, still holding one of my hands. Her face was clouded and stormy with the echoes of her tears, but there was some measure of calm. It let Kat and me come to the same place, quiet and still in the shadow of all our grief. We asked if she had any questions; she shook her head. We told her we loved her. She whispered, almost but not quite crying again, “I love you too.” We kissed her, almost but not quite crying again.
And then it was time to tell her sister.