Bittersweet

Published 1 year, 8 months ago

This morning, our youngest child Joshua attended his first day of kindergarten.  After breakfast and lunch-making and a shoe argument and coffee for everyone but me, we walked up our sun-dappled street to the elementary school together, me and my wife and our son and the empty hole beside him, where his sister would have been.

Today was his big day, and Kat and I worked hard to keep it that way.  We took his picture on the front porch, as we did for each kid on their first day, and strolled along the sidewalk.  We smiled as he shifted his brand-new backpack on his shoulders, getting used to its weight and feel with its folders and crayon box.  We ruffled our hands in his first-day-of-school haircut—a Mohawk, at his request—as he assured us that he and his friend M.L. would know everything they needed to do in school, since they’d already learned it all in preschool.  We stood with him outside the school’s front door, chatting with parents and teachers as we waited for the start of the day.  We headed into the building in a line, eventually splitting off into the kids’ room and the parents’ orientation room.

We didn’t talk about our missing third-grader, even to ourselves.  We refrained from sharing the looks, the touches, the abbreviated sentence fragments that are painfully clear to us and nobody else.  Our kids may not understand exactly what we’re saying in those moments, but they know exactly what we’re talking about, just from the way our jaws stiffen and the dull sharded light in our eyes.

We didn’t talk about our hopes of past years, how we’d looked forward to our kids walking to school together, hand in hand.  We didn’t talk about the two years we’d been away from the school, years we had expected to be there as each kid moved through the grades.  We didn’t talk about the absent eyes that would have shone with pride and protection.

We didn’t talk about how we had only made one decaf coffee for the kids that morning, instead of two.  Joshua, like Rebecca before him, loves coffee.  As long as it’s loaded with milk and sugar, that is.

Bittersweet.

As we got ready to leave the school and Joshua to his day, we gave him hugs.  He showed us the work folder he’d been given, a plain Manila folder on which the kids had been asked to draw a picture of their families.  He’d drawn us all: Kat, and me, and Carolyn, and himself.  And between him and Carolyn, a line.

A marker drawn in marker, holding open a place in his family that can never be filled.

We told him it was a great drawing, and to have a great day, and held our tears until we were well out of his sight.

It’s not fair to anyone, least of all him, that these milestones are so irrevocably tinged.  We try, and often succeed, to keep them focused on the present, to take them for what they are rather than what we wanted them to be.  And we’re getting better at it as time passes.  Better is not perfect, and I doubt it ever will be.

But if you’re reading this years from now, Joshua, please know: we were so happy to see you start kindergarten.  We truly felt joy seeing you meet your classmates and teachers, and give everyone that sly half-smile you’ve perfected.  And we felt pride at seeing that you haven’t forgotten the sister who died when you were so very young, and whose memory you keep alive in your own ways.

We may have missed Rebecca, but we didn’t miss seeing you take those first steps into your new school, and we’re beyond grateful that we could be there to see them.


  1. Hurrah Joshua! Congratulations to him and to all of you for moving onward, past another marker, making life richer and more meaningful along the way. It is a beautiful thing you’ve described, Joshua’s demonstration of the space he holds in his heart and mind for Rebecca and, to me at least, it illustrates the way you and Kat have modeled love and loss. You remain inspirations to me, guides along this difficult, cherishable, challenging and lovable life.

  2. God bless you and your family, Eric. Congratulations on Joshua’s start at school and for him keeping Rebecca close, in his own way.

  3. Dear Eric:

    It continues to astound me how alike — and how different — our families and our stories are. Like Joshua, our son David lost his older sister Megan. Like your kids, my kids both loved coffee. (I had to have partners-in-crime since my wife doesn’t drink the stuff.) Like you, there are so many times we’ve not talked about the gap in our family nobody sees. It’s been 8 years, so now there are folks who know us who never knew Megan and are unaware (or only marginally aware) of our loss.

    Differently than you, we lost our daughter when she was a high school senior. We didn’t have to watch her health fail, but we also didn’t get to [try to] prepare for the inevitable. She was happy and here earlier in the day; that night she was gone. Her brother had been expecting his sister’s help in going through high school but had to go it alone. He drifted and never really got his sea legs. And… we never got to see her off to college, or see her start a career in neuroscience, or see her start a family.

    We did continue to be a part of Megan’s school because it was now David’s school. We were at the senior awards ceremony where Megan should have been honored, and have been at every one of them since: because we were there to give a scholarship that bears her name. But we’ve had to watch her peers, and then her younger friends, and then their younger siblings graduate, and her teachers move on to other positions. Now there are only one or two people left at the school who remember her. I remember being thankful that “scholarship night” seemed to get less difficult after a while, but now it’s become hard again.

    You are so right in encouraging your son, and in letting him know the joy you have in him. I am trying my best to do the same with my son, and it always worries me whether or not that vital message is actually getting across.

  4. Sending your family much love … dark chocolate pretzels… that’s how I experience these moments.

  5. We lost our eldest, our Reina, just before she was born.
    Our now nine year youngest son is telling his friends at school: I have a sister, you know.
    That makes her real, not only for her painting mother and her css-ing father; he is the door to the world for her! Just like Joshua now. God bless Rebecca, her parents and her brother! Grtz, Jos

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