Avery and Lily are my surviving 25 weeker triplets, now 5 ½ years old. Their sister Zoe lived for 14 months before succumbing to a secondary infection after being hospitalized with flu and pneumonia. Lately, they’ve been asking a lot of questions.
“Mommy, is Zoe a baby or a big girl in Heaven?”
“I’m going to bring Zoe her blanket and pillow when I go to Heaven.”
“Mommy, when will we go to Heaven and see Zoe and how do we get there, do I take a left turn or a right turn?”
“Mommy, why did Zoe go to Heaven?”
“Mommy, if I was in the clouds and I was falling Zoe would flutter down and rescue me.”
“Mommy, in my dream last night I was playing with Zoe. She was at our house!”
“I’m going to paint a picture of our whole family: me, Lily, Daddy, you, and Zoe. Can I give the picture to Zoe? How will I give it to her?”
These are questions and comments I’m not prepared for. I knew they’d be coming at some point. I just don’t know how to answer them. I want to answer these questions with truth and comfort. I don’t want to give trite responses like “God decided He needed another angel.” Or “It was God’s plan.” We have always been open, clear, and honest with them; to welcome conversation and curiosity about Zoe, her life and her death. We don’t stifle their questions, nor do we want “sweep it under the rug.” But how does a parent answer these questions?
One rainy afternoon, I was cleaning up our spare bedroom and on the side table sat this beautiful wooden trunk a friend gave me after Zoe died. It is an old Asian trunk made of rich mahogany, with a hand painted pink rose and vine stretching across the top with Zoe’s name painted in gold among the leaves. I haven’t put all of Zoe’s things in it yet, just a few of my favorite outfits like the orange onsie I bought her while she was in the NICU that reads “I won’t remember any of this”. There are her favorite toys, a purple elephant that used to sing a tolerable classical tune and the now iconic ladybug.
As with most tasks that I prefer to do alone, Avery and Lily found their way into the bedroom and started to ooooo and ahhhh as they rummaged through the trunk.
“What’s this Mommy?” Lily asked.
“Some of Zoe’s favorite things that I wanted to save.”
“Did Zoe play with these toys? Did she sleep with these blankets? What did she say when she played with this? This one’s funny looking…a book that’s a triangle.” Followed by joyful squeals of laughter.
I smiled behind my sadness, looked away when I couldn’t hide the tears trickling down my cheeks. I began to ask their questions, silently to myself and realized yet again that I don’t have any answers.
“Why is Zoe in Heaven?”, I don’t know.
“When will we see Zoe again?”, I don’t know.
“Will my arms ever stop aching to hold her?”, probably not.
I watched their hands moving rapidly, digging and examining each item; expressing glee with high pitched squeals and giggles. Picking up one animal after the other; squeezing a belly or a hand to see if it talks or sings a song.
“This one needs batteries.” Lily declared matter-of-factly, as she handed me the cow and moved on to the next toy of interest. I sat quietly and watched them. Remembering each time and place Zoe played with these things. The moving pictures of those short 14 months with Zoe flashed through my mind and brought the co-mingling of joy and grief now ever-present in my life.
I held back my instinct to shoo the girls away and leave me alone to touch and caress these items Zoe’s own fingers once touched. That would send the wrong message to them. That would tell them they aren’t special enough to play with Zoe’s toys. I need Zoe to be accessible to them, not some big mystery or competition for my heart and love. My desire for Avery and Lily is that they would feel a connection with their Heavenly sister in some way. I know all too well the confusion and the emptiness that comes with grasping for something, anything that can be touched, seen, smelled, and held. As much as I hunger for that myself, I can’t deprive Avery and Lily of the very same thing.
These items were bringing them joy, just as they once did to Zoe. Zoe’s hand lightly reached down that day and caressed her sisters. She’s with them. They can’t see her, they can’t hear her. But I believe, in a way they have yet to express, they can feel her.