I wasn't sure what to say to Sabrina and Max about my dad's death; I didn't know what they would understand. So I kept it really simple.
I spoke with Sabrina first. "I'm sad today, honey," I said to her after dinner the other day. She wanted to know why. I told her Zadie had died.
"I feel bad," she said. And then, "What happens when you're dead?"
I told her it was like going to sleep and never waking up.
"Where is Zadie now?" she asked.
I said he was in a special place.
"Oh, I know where that place is," she said. "They put you in the ground."
I was kind of floored—I had no idea how she knew that.
"Why did he die?" she asked.
I told her his body wasn't working very well anymore, and that seemed to satisfy her.
Over the last few days, she's had lots more questions:
"Every year Zadie's going to be dead?"
"Lots of years he's going to be dead?"
"In a thousand years he'll still be dead?"
"Is everyone in New Jersey going to die?"
"How did he know he was dead?"
"Will everyone be dead in 1000 years?"
And the hardest question of all:
"How are you going to say goodbye?"
People say that the death of a parent often makes you think about your own mortality, but I hadn't considered that until the conversations with Sabrina. The one question she hasn't asked is whether I will someday die, though I know that's bubbling in her brain.
I told Max that Zadie had died and showed him photos. "He's not coming back," I said. Max just shook his head at me. I will try to keep explaining.
Hanging with the kids and hugging them incessantly has made this time easier, as have all the friends and family who have come by. Reading messages here and on Facebook have been comforting, too. Today, friends brought dinner and included spaghetti for Max, chopped up the way he can eat it; I was so touched. I have talked about my dad a lot, shared memories, and eaten my body weight in bakery cookies (my own death is probably the only thing that will ever suppress my appetite).
I veer back and forth. One minute, I am doing OK. The next minute, I am Googling how long it takes for a body to decompose in a grave (about a year), and wishing it were possible to open the casket and see my dad one more time.
Nighttime is hard. I lie in bed and picture my dad's apartment, dark and empty. I think of the rain falling on his grave and hope he's not wet and cold, even though I know full well he can no longer feel. I think back again and again to the last time I visited and try to remember whether I somehow sensed that it was the final time I'd ever see him.
"Which books shall we read to remember Zadie?" I asked Sabrina at bedtime tonight. She suggested Pinkalicious and Amelia Bedelia, which is exactly what you get when ask a 6-year-old for meaningful book suggestions. Then she fell asleep early in Max's bed, snuggled up beside her cousin Margo, who's 18 months old.
I snuck in and watched the two of them sleeping, their little chests rising and falling with every breath, their faces so sweet. And I felt some peace.