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.
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.