We had guests for dinner, as we often do, a house full of squealing, laughing children and their grownups, preparing dinner and trying to figure out who would get stuck with setting the table. We’d all gone up the street to the elementary school to test out their new playground equipment and try to fly a kite in the random spring breeze, running around an open field and trying not to slip in the mud. Now we were back and ready to eat.
Rebecca played and laughed with the other kids, all obvious traces of our conversation earlier that day erased by the simple joy being a five-year-old, living wholly in the moment. Playing impromptu tag, hiding around corners to shout “Boo!” and cackle with delight, singing pop songs and musical numbers with her sister and friends. Because for all that’s going on, you would never know to look at her that anything was wrong. We can even forget, from time to time. She lives just as she always has, full of energy and smiles, and we’re determined to keep it that way as long as we can.
Eventually, it was time to take the little ones up to bed, which Kat and I divided up with a family friend. Suddenly, I heard Kat’s voice breaking. She was in the nursing chair we still have hanging around the house, Joshua on her lap, ready to read his bedtime stories. Rebecca was standing next to her, still and calm. I sat on the footstool, my legs just behind Rebecca’s.
“Rebecca told me she’s scared that she’s going to die and be all alone. Baby, we will be always be with you, always always always. You will never be alone. Okay?”
My hand was on Rebecca’s back, tears in my eyes but not on my cheek. I asked if she understood what Mommy had said. She nodded, her eyes cast down in thought. We thanked her for telling us what she was feeling, for trusting us. She nodded again, and turned to look at me. Looked into my eyes, and saw everything that was there. Gave me a sad, affectionate smile, put her arms tenderly around me, and kissed me gently on the cheek.
My little girl, my child, trying to soothe my pain.
Later, as she lay under her princess blankets to read her own bedtime stories with a family friend, I came in to tell her good night. She was holding a book about kids who have cancer. We have such books, now. I perched on the edge of the bed next to her and smoothed back a riot of her curls.
“Can you tell Daddy why you picked this book to read?” our friend prompted.
“Daddy, I’m reading this book because it will help me be strong — ”, she curled her arms in classic strongman pose, then dropped them, “ — and brrrave.” She beamed up at me.
I smoothed back another curl, affectionately tweaked the end of her nose, and looked directly into her eyes as I said, “Sweetie, you are already by far the strongest and bravest person I have ever met.”
A wide grin, a little chortle, and then she flung her arms wide. I leaned down and she leaned up, our arms circling each other, squeezing just hard enough. I held her lean, solid weight close, her body strong and light, and for those moments I felt no sorrow, no fear, no pain, not for her and not for me, not for any of us. There was just a calm peace rooted in the strength of her love and the bravery of her heart, and nothing else.