It’s funny the things you look back on and remember.
Funny, those things that strike you as being so very special even though, to most, they may be so mundane. For as long as I can remember, my Nonna has left a night light on in the kitchen. The whole entire house will be dark, grandfather clock chiming in the middle of the night, and if for some reason you happen by the kitchen you will find that little light glowing right there under the cabinets. Though my days of sleeping in her house have long since passed, I cling to that memory and the warmth, tenderness, and care that it represents. That glowing light in the kitchen was always a reminder to me of how much we were loved. Even in their sleep my grandparents were caring for us. Providing for us. Loving us.
In this house we have an ABUNDANCE of nightlights, nearly all of which are Christmas-themed. My mom has given them to the boys year after year. As a matter of fact, there are two in each of their bedrooms that stay there all year long. They love them and they serve a purpose, so why not? I came across an extra nightlight as I was unpacking the Christmas decorations this year, and the memory of that kitchen scene burst right back into the forefront of my mind. So I brought it straight into the kitchen, above the toaster, where it remained for the duration of the Christmas season.
I think that we managed quite well this year, the first Christmas without my Nonno here to celebrate with us. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, perhaps because I worried so much about it going in. Who was going to hold the big garbage bag to collect all of the gift wrap on Christmas Eve? Who was going to sit at the head of the table? Who was going to tell me that the next baby better be a girl “or else.” (An obvious statement when you learn that the man absolutely LOVED being the father to three daughters.) And yet, the absence of those things went by with hardly any notice.
It’s funny the way you react to things you don’t think you’d react to and vice versa.
Funny, how you walk through the liquor aisle at Costco and burst into tears when you pass the Johnny Walker Black because that was what you gave him for Christmas year after year. Funny how you debate over whether to purchase the expensive DiSaronno or the cheaper generic amaretto with tears in your eyes and finally, against your better judgment, opt for the pricier version because that is what he always served you. The heart does funny things and responds to memories at the oddest times, doesn’t it?
What’s not so funny, though, is watching your children begin to understand all of these things for themselves. The loss of my grandfather came about pretty quickly, starting and ending all in the month of July. There were lots of doctor visits, lots of ambulance rides, a long hospital stay. While I never talked about it directly with the boys, I should have known that they were listening. (Christopher, in particular.) Hindsight reveals that I should have been more aware of those little big ears. Blasted hindsight. We never told him that Nonno died. Sure we went to a special Mass for him and we prayed for him a lot, but we never had a “This is what happens when people die” talk with Chris. What we DID do was start visiting my Nonna a lot more frequently. Sometimes he would ask where Nonno was, but never with enough interest for me to worry to much about how I answered. (“Is Nonno going to be there?” …. “No, Nonno is not going to be there.”) Quick and easy. For him and for me. Okay, mostly for me. It is true that I didn’t know how to talk about it with him. My main goal being not to start crying every time we mentioned the name.
This Fall, Tim’s mom came down with a pretty bad bout of Pneumonia. An ambulance came to get her. It took her to the hospital where she stayed for a few days. We talked to the boys about this a lot. Jake came with me to visit her one day while Chris was at school, but as it worked out, Christopher never came in the hospital to see her. He was not visibly shaken by all of this, but when she came home you can guess who was GLUED to her side from the moment we stepped in their front door until the last second he could squeeze out before we left. This went on for a couple of weeks. The other thing that happened at this point was a sudden and severe shift in behavior at the twice-weekly preschool drop-off. While he’d only started school a few weeks before, even in his very hesitant beginnings we never had behavior like this. SCREAMING. CRYING. CRAWLING over the teacher’s shoulders when she would take him so I could leave. It was awful. I spent the entire morning of my birthday agonizing over whether or not he really was ready to start preschool. Maybe we forced him into this too quickly.
I should have figured it out when one day, at that same time, he asked me out of the blue, “Mom? Where’s Nonno?”
Sometimes I can be so dense.
My mom ended up being the one who cracked the code: Nonno rode in an ambulance. Nonno went to the hospital. Nonno Disappeared. Oma rode in an ambulance. Oma stayed in the hospital…. Suddenly the separation AGONY started to make sense. If my mom’s hypothesis was right, Christopher was becoming aware of the fact that people in his life, people who he really loved, were disappearing. Perhaps he was trying to make sure that would stop happening.
Within a couple of weeks he came through the anxiety and started to give my mother-in-law a little bit of space. We talk about Nonno a lot and when he asks me where he is, I answer honestly: He lives with Jesus now. In Heaven.
Feeling like we’ve both come a long away with all of this, I don’t know why I was surprised with the conversation that we had at my Grandma’s house yesterday afternoon. We had driven down for a quick visit with my Nonna and then headed over to the house where my dad grew up to empty a few more things out. This month marks two years since her death, and we’re still emptying out. (That’s another story all its own.) I was standing in the (nearly empty) dining room, packing a few boxes while Tim had the boys out in the backyard. After a few minutes, Christopher came in and said, “Mom? Did Grandma die?” I surprised myself with my response: “Yes, honey. Grandma died.” What followed was a bevy of questions: Where does she live now? (In Heaven) Why doesn’t she live here anymore? (Because she gets to live with Jesus now) Did Santa come here? (No) Why not? (Because no children live here.) But why did she die? (Because she was very very old and it was time for her to go live with Jesus, but Grandma sure did love you. She loved you very much.)
The question that followed nearly shattered my heart into a million pieces, and I type it with tears in my eyes: But if she loved us then why did she move so far away from us?
My boy. My precious little soul. So simple. So honest. So sincere.
So we had a nice long talk about Grandma and Heaven, about Jesus. And he handled it. Not only did he handle it, but he handled it WELL. Sure, he’s now telling everyone he knows that Grandma died. (Which, she did, but it was TWO YEARS AGO.) And his parrot of a little brother is telling everyone as well. But that’s okay. I suppose that’s how he is going to process it. This is important information that he has been given, and while it really happened so many months ago, for him it’s a brand new reality. I need to allow him that.
And so it begins – the time has come for me to share my Faith with my son in a deeper level than I have been required as of yet. You wouldn’t think that someone with a degree in Theology who taught this stuff for a living would feel so…challenged…by the task, and yet I do. Of the very many people who came through my classroom, the three most important students I will ever have are now right here before me. I can only pray that I will live up to the task.
It's funny. Funny, how sometimes the greatest lessons (about some of the hardest things) come at the hands of a four year old.