Editor's note: Some stories are worth re-telling. This is one of them. It's a story I share every Thanksgiving to remind myself of why we are gathered together--to remember all that we have, and never forget what so many others have lost.
Her name does not matter; only her story does. She was three years old the day before Thanksgiving 2005 when my neighbor asked if I could care for her daughter at my house. She did not ask me to watch her daughter because there were last minute holiday errands to run, or appointments to be met. No, she asked me to care for her three-year-old daughter because her only son would die that day. He was 16-years old. He had cancer.
“Joey has a weed growing inside of him that’s poison,” this little girl explained to me as I knelt before her on my kitchen floor and looked into her eyes, “and he will be an angel soon.” She explained this to me while nodding her head very matter-of-factly between licks of a cherry red Blow Pop; her red-stained lollipop lips pursed together in imitation of solemn contemplation. Then she smiled. The kind of wide smile that only a small child is capable of bestowing. The kind that forces lollipop syrup to spill onto their chin.
I wiped her face with the palm of my hand and held it there, half expecting a transfusion of strength from her unwavering optimism. She nodded her head, as her smile slowly faded, and left to join my children in the living room.
I tried to hold myself together as I bent over the kitchen sink scrubbing it for no other reason than I could run the water to diffuse the sound of my sobs so that the children could not hear me. I could think of nothing but this girl’s mother, my friend. Here I am in my warm, safe house, where just a few hours ago I was completely unnerved by the fact that the free turkey from Shop Rite would not be enough to feed the 30 people coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. All I kept thinking, as I scrubbed harder and harder, was that while I thought I was losing my mind, my friend was, in fact, losing her child.
As the sun began to set, the call came that Joey had died.
"He's in a better place," I dimly remember hearing. And anger tinged the moment, because all the faith in the world could not convince me that there is any better place for a child than in his mother's arms. And I watched as this little girl pirouetted with my son and daughter around and around and around the living room, dizzily spilling onto the floor in joyful squeals of laughter. I watched them carefully, shrouded with the weight of understanding that they were no longer playmates, but lifemates--bonded by this moment of supreme loss.
Time has passed, and days gone by, but from that day forward, every Thanksgiving this is what I remember—a child smiling and laughing and playing unaware that something of great value had been taken from her. Some part of her is gone and will forever be missing.
I just wish that I could tell her that when her brother died, she was playing, she was laughing, she was happy, she was whole. I like to think that when her brother’s spirit left his body he came to be with her, here, in the dim autumn light that seeped through the paned glass of my living room windows.
I wish that I could tell her how from that day forward her belief in better angels inspired me to be a stronger, more thoughtful person. She may not remember what is was like to have had him as her brother, but she knows with the certainty that only a child possesses that he is her guardian angel, and he will never abandon her.
And I give thanks for my own life, for the health of my children, and for the grace of being with this precious little girl on that day, and gaining a lifetime of strength from the unwavering courage of her belief in heavenly angels.
I know what she did not, and what she may never come to understand; that the day her brother died was a crushingly sad day; a day of massive loss; a day she will probably never ever remember, but question for the rest of her life. And I want to tell her that she was okay, that she was loved, that she was protected.
I want to tell her that on that day, at that moment, she was not alone because every mother in the universe gathered together to hold her in their arms to protect and comfort her. Because that is what we mothers do—we put aside our collective differences to gather together to protect the child of every mother in the time of her greatest need.
I wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving. And I ask you to gather together all the people you love this Thanksgiving and take a moment to remember every mother who has an empty seat at her table, and an empty place in her heart, this day and every day.
Editor's Note: The author is a Fort Lee native and currently the editor of New Milford Patch.