Her name does not matter; only her story does. She was three years old in the fall of 2005 when her mother asked if I could watch her at my house. She did not ask me to watch her daughter because there were 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. “He has a weed growing inside of him that’s poison,” this little girl explained to me that day, “and he will be an angel soon.” She told this to me while nodding her head very matter-of-factly between licks of a cherry red Blow Pop; her red-stained lips pursed together in solemn contemplation. I, of course, had to turn away from her to hide my tears while she and my children ran into the living room to watch Dora the Explorer and dance spasmodically to the addictive Latin beat.
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. I could think of nothing but this girl’s mother, my friend. Here I am in my cozy little 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 25 people coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. While I was losing my mind, she was losing her child.
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, the moment his spirit fled his body, 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.
To all of you who take the time to read this column every week I wish 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.