Last week Julia was watching me pay bills while she ate plain noodles with butter, a staple in our house, at our kitchen table. She kept intently staring at me from across the table while I wrote checks for our mortgage, car and other household expenses. I could feel her eyes as my head was bent over this new domestic task. “How do you know how to do that?” she quietly asked as my pen scratched the paper, double checking my math. “Oh, somebody taught me, maybe in middle school.” I said absently as I licked envelopes, gagging on the disgusting sealant taste. I looked up to see Julia’s face scrunched in worry, her dark brown eyes crinkled as she said, “But if you die, who will teach me? I don’t know how to pay bills.”
And my heart broke. I’m tearing up, a lump in my throat even as I type this now to think of her little 4 year old mind that should be worried about baby dolls and which exact color Strawberry Shortcake’s dress is and instead is concerned that she cannot write a check to pay our mortgage and nobody could teach her should I, like her father, die unexpectedly.
Let me say, she still cares immensely about crayon colors, the exact rules of a made-up game called “Popsicles and Minnows” which is like something out of a Dr. Seuss story involving jumping over a person who is lying down, and said person is presumably praying they are not leapt on, and yelling, “Minnow Jump!” She is intensely aware of the care and comfort of the veritable nursery of baby dolls she owns but I find she is also more adult than seems appropriate. I’ve said to friends that the sentence that sums it up is, “Julia is a typical 4 year old who has a non-age appropriate understanding of mortality.” Death is real to her.
But back to watching, I catch her watching me quietly. Which for her is unusual because typically it is a James Joycean stream of consciousness monologue festival in our house. Literally, I have said to her, “You have to stop talking to me” in order to get a few minutes of peaceful quiet. As she stares I’m struck by her dark eyes, her daddy’s eyes, that seem out of place among her fair skin and blonde hair as she looks and gauges my mood. She gazes as I go through our routine and tries very hard in her 4 year old way to take care of me, which is heartwarming and a blessed testament to her kind, kind spirit. I get lots of sweet kisses and bone crushing hugs and books and loveys…my bed is rarely empty of these items.
I watch Julia too, ever ready for her to say or do something that I need to deal with because should she fall apart and her grief coming tumbling out like a great flood, I need to be there to deal with it carefully and appropriately. I’m ever ready for the deluge. I find myself asking her if she looks a bit serious or just seem quiet, “Julia, are you sad?” as an emotional pulse check. She’ll look at me questioningly, “No, why should I be sad?”
I want to cynically laugh, “Why indeed?” Because our lives feel topsy-turvy, because you have to watch other children’s fathers pick them up from school and know yours never will again, because everything feels so unbalanced, like standing on a see-saw where our feet are ever unsure. I want to shake my fist at the sky, I want to wheedle and bargain with God, I want everything to be as it was when this year began because that life, not this one, is my reality. I want to shout all of these things like some shrieking harpy, filling the kitchen with my ranting.
I look at Julia, her eyes questioning me as she says, “Why do I need to be sad? Daddy is happy in Heaven, you know.” Very matter of factly and simply. No gnashing of teeth, no wailing, just simple faith and understanding. Julia does not at her core comprehend why we should we be sad when Daddy is happy in Heaven and we will see him again. Daddy plays with his friends and family who have died, he has Chick-fil-A for breakfast, he is content. Where is the sadness in that fact? To quote what I find myself saying umpteen times a week, “It is what it is.” And in a moment I am the one who lacks the understanding she possesses in those captivating brown eyes watching me, watching her.