It's always something

Our friend is dying; a matter of days, her doctors say. Come soon – now – stay for just a few minutes. I tell this to the children, that our friend is dying, soon; tell Rachel as she walks in the door from some errand or other: don’t take off your coat, just go.

Isaac is already gathering up treasure, presents, pressing a silver filigree ring from one of his troves into her hands, asking to come with. Later, when it’s my turn to duck into our friend’s quiet room, I will see the ring on her bedside table. Not sure if she knows it’s there, but now Isaac does and that is important to him.

He’s on a mission the next morning, gathering, gathering, gathering shiny things in the house, layering them in boxes, insisting that we take them, take him, to see her. He doesn’t take no easily for an answer, this boy, asking again and again why he can’t go. He’ll be very quiet, he says. He won’t disturb her. He’s going to give her all his money, he says, all the money in his little jar marked “Isaac’s bank.” Then she can buy some food. He’ll take it to her. And we try to explain that what our friend needs right now is not money, or food. Just love. And care. Then I’ll give the money to the doctors, he says, dogged. To use to help her, the morning a chorus of refrains of why and why and why not.

I guess we won’t go on any more walks in the country with our friend, he says.

No, I guess we won’t.

Explaining all of these things to him is so layered, so exhausting: the etiquette of death and dying on top of hospitals on top of rite and ritual and finance and generosity. How do you encourage a four-year-old’s selflessness while also encouraging restraint? Which is it, then? We can’t just burst into her hospital room with boxes full of treasures and feather boas, and even as I’m trying to explain this, I’m thinking of our friend’s house, full of shiny rocks and sparkly things and pop-up books and photographs, her shy cat peeping out through the layers of wonder, her, smiling out from photographs on the fridge. And Isaac is right, it doesn’t make any sense that what she might now need is quiet, order. And I don’t want him to see her now, asleep, and slack-jawed, and to remember that image of her instead of the buoyant woman with a head full of hair, playing checkers on the floor with him and his brother.

How do you explain to him that his impulse to give, to want to do something, is precisely right — and yet, that doesn’t mean that he can take the two silver boxes off Rachel’s dresser and give them away? I mean, it sounds so petty, so selfish of me to say no (what kind of a douchebag are you? She’s dying.): of course I would hand them and more over in a heartbeat if it would make any difference, but it won’t and you can’t really give other people’s things away… the explanation, the logic of it, fizzle away in the face of the situation, my explanations as ridiculous as his questions: Can we put the money on her gravestone? (She’s not dead yet, Isaac, I want to say, but) No, we don’t put money on gravestones. Why? Well, because we… Well, then we can scatter it in the grass. Oh sweetie, that won’t help our friend. But let’s find sparkly rocks when the time comes. When the time is right, we’ll take some of the money from our house and give it in our friend’s honour to a place that will help to make sure that no one else…

And then I can’t finish the sentence. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because he’s already dumping out the change and the five-dollar bill from his bank and asking me to count it and I turn from the window, where I have been staring out at the snowy driveway, fighting tears, to tally up twelve dollars and nineteen cents.

Mama, you’re looking like you have a sad look on your face, Mama.

I do. I’m sad.

About our friend?

Yeah. Do you want to be sad together for a little while? Cuddle up on the couch and be sad together?

Okay.

[Beat.]

But can’t I go see her?

No.

Why not?

I don’t know.

* * *

In memory of HS. For GS & JB.