Had some girlfriends over with their daughters for a little pre-Christmas festivity. Lovely day; gossiping and toddlers playing well together (and sharing! OMG!). And of course, baking cookies with Miss Ella, who also drew me a really nice picture of Princess Fiona. She’s such a sweet girl, and a lot like I was at the same age. Except if Ella had met me then, she would have talked me down. She can talk me down now, which is pretty impressive.
Things went well, until I was discussing what color I’m planning to paint the living room. I was showing off the quilts that my mother made; one for me on my 30th birthday and the other was a memorial quilt for Isaac. They’re really beautiful, and I’m hoping to display them a little better once I have a pretty backdrop for them. They even have inscriptions and tracings of her hand prints on one and Isaac’s little footprint on the other.
We’ve never kept Isaac’s life and death secret. Obviously; there’s an entire other blog about him. We don’t talk about him often anymore, but when he comes up he’s just like any other topic. Part of our lives, not some dark, scary secret. So since I am so accustomed to everyone knowing about him, I unthinkingly I mentioned him. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, because when a topic like Isaac comes up and the child in question is from a religious family, it’s no big deal. You just say he “Went to heaven” or “Went to be with Jesus” or that “He’s an angel now.” I’ve been in that situation before. But Ella’s family is Atheist, same as ours, and there’s no way she’d accept such pacification.
No, Ella wanted to know exactly what had happened. Who had been his mother? Had he died while he was inside me, or did he come out alive? How big was he? How old was he? She looked like she was considering crying as I kept shooting panicked looks at her mother, Barbi. Who was calm and said that they are honest about things and to go ahead. I never, ever expected to explain the concept of babies dying while still inside their mothers to a child at Christmas. Awkward does not begin to cover it.
It was a very eye-opening experience, because I intend to be much the same as E grows up. But openness in theory is a very different thing than openness when there’s a little girl contemplating the fragility of human life in my living room. I tried to explain things in a way that she would understand. Barbi has told me before that, when Ella asks about matters of faith, she answers simply but honestly that people choose what to believe that makes them feel safe in the world. Barbi has said that she believes in science, and I said I do too. Which at least brought some delighted surprise to Ella’s face. “You like science too?” she squealed.
So I gave her the simplest version of events I could: the doctor told us that the baby in my tummy was too small and sick and that he was going to go away. And yes, we were very, very sad, and he was very small (as she had seen the footprint), no bigger than a doll. And that we were sad for a while, but that was ok. She was close to tears then, and that’s when we got to the very sticky part. Because, although both her family and mine are Atheist, that only means we don’t believe in God. On the murky concepts of souls, where we go when we die, and so on, there are differences. And I certainly didn’t want to confuse her further. But Barbi kept giving me nods of encouragement, so I plowed ahead.
I told her she didn’t ever need to be sad about Isaac. I told her I was glad he was here when he was. And then I talked about “choosing to believe” things. I used this specific phrase, as Barbi said that’s how Ella described believing in Santa Clause; she chooses to believe. I said, “You know the part of you that makes you Ella? That you are Ella and you live in this body?” She nodded. “It makes me feel good to believe that part of the baby that died came back to live in a different body, and that boy is Edward.”
This seemed to satisfy her. Then I asked her, “Have you ever said something by accident, and then you had to tell the whole story when you didn’t mean to bring it up at all?” That at least she understood completely, and there were hugs and laughter and normalcy from then on. But it really hit me how hard it will be to raise E without religion. I’ve never had it, so answers like “He went to Heaven” never really worked for me at her age either. But I guess I haven’t really considered how delicate and diplomatic we will have to be as we answer E’s questions about the universe.
All reports from her parents say Miss Ella is doing fine, and Barbi reassured me several times. Doesn’t make me feel less like Queen of Inappropriate Disclosure, which is something I need on a T-shirt, but at least there doesn’t seem to be any existential crisis on the horizon. Not for her, and not for me. I was being truly honest with her; I don’t know that I believe that boy-child-soul-thing came back to me in a body that worked, but I was telling the truth that it makes me feel better to think that. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter if that idea is true or not, because it has served it’s purpose: it comforted.
I debated if I wanted to share this awkward exchange, but I decided that if I am struggling with this there are other faithless parents who are going through the same thing. And that’s kind of how I roll. So here it is, and as I reread it, it sounds less awkward and panicked than it felt. Hopefully the ohshitohshitohshitohshit I was thinking all stayed inside, and that, to Miss Ella, I just looked like a reasonable adult.