There is a story we tell Toddler every night, between her prayers and her song. It usually goes something like this:
Once upon a time, a long-long time ago, before we were ever born on Earth, all the way back in premortality, we all lived with Heavenly Father. You were His daughter, and that’s why He loves you so much. You loved Him, too, and you were a strong spirit.
You listened to what Heavenly Father told us about His plan for happiness, and you wanted people to be happy like He promised. You were a valiant spirit, and you were a warrior who fought hard for people to have their free moral agency so they could become happy by choosing to follow Heavenly Father’s plan. You knew that choice mattered, and you fought hard to make sure we could have Heavenly Father’s plan where everyone got a choice.
We knew you then, too, and were so honored to be friends with such a strong spirit who loved Heavenly Father so much. You told Heavenly Father that you wanted to be born to your mother, to help give her a reason to choose happiness, even though you knew she might not. You knew it would be hard, and that hard things would happen, but you believed Heavenly Father’s promise that we can do hard things. He so blessed you for your faith, that He promised help would come when you needed it. We made promises, too, to help you when it was time, because we already loved you so much. We did not know, and you did not know, if you would be with us a long time or a short time, because it was so important to give your mother every chance to choose.
But we did promise to take care of your new body, and to bless your ancient spirit with the priesthood, and that if you did stay, we would take you to the temple. That’s why we go to the temple every month, and that’s why we will keep doing work for your family – because even if your mother is still learning to choose, all the people before her are still learning from you. You are already a missionary, and already so many people love you. Your mother loves you, and we love you, and Heavenly Father loved you. That is so many people who love you, and so many people who want to help you make good choices.
We all know, even if we can’t remember all of it, that choice has always been important to you, and that every day you are so excited to be practicing choosing for yourself. This is what makes you strong, and free, and independent, and alive. This is why you were born on Earth: to choose, and to love.
This, we feel, is the best way to incorporate truths we know, things she has asked about, things her mother has said to her, and pieces of her we know to be true from her personality to revelation and blessings.
It’s way better than, “Yeah, your mom liked heroin better than you” or “stop being so defiant and oppositional”.
Because those things aren’t true.
Her mother has chosen poorly, but her mother has been through a lot with very little help. If bringing Toddler into the world is what she has accomplished, then she has done good. It is not my place to condemn her by declaring what the atonement won’t fix for her someday, and her bad choices have nothing to do with what love she holds for her daughter.
And toddler? She is a miracle. She has come so far, and is so tender, and loves so much. She cried this weekend, at the story of Jesus dying, and then cried again when our friend from church passed away. She doesn’t have fits anymore, except very rarely, and is using her words to ask for what she needs and wants instead of screaming or grunting.
Five is his own miracle. He has taught her to be happy, and taught her to laugh, and taught her to be tender to the little ones. They fill my heart with joy and beauty, reminding me of true Zion and the kind of love we should have for each other.
When he found out about his “sacrament buddy” passing away, he was very confused. This boy at church was very kind to Five, who idolized him a bit. Five is learning to sit still during church, and to be cool like the older boys, and really wants to pass sacrament. This boy was kind to Five, giving him high fives and knuckles and trying not to laugh at his antics during church. He gave him the cool kid head nod when Five got over eager and excited about the bread and water, and that kindness is what Five remembers about our young friend.
He said to me, “Mommy, when I grow up, I want to pass sacrament just like him, so everyone knows they are loved so very much.”
I cried, and hugged him. Toddler cried, too, and we talked about death some more, and what Easter promises, and how grief can be so hard. The kids decided they really needed to give Bishop and his wife hugs, and we were glad to do so when it was time for us to gather with them in grief. Except when we got there, and Five got a chance to say what he wanted to share, he surprised me by saying something else than what he had wanted to say.
He said, “When I grow up, I want to be a missionary like him.”
Later, I asked him about that, because our friend was only a deacon, barely an adolescent, and so did not get to grow up and serve a mission.
Know what he said to me?
He said, “mommy, one day he told me he knew the church was true. We were in the bathroom, and I asked him, and he said, ‘yeah, kid, it is true’ and I told him that makes him a missionary because he knows it’s true. And he told me I need to be good if I want to be a missionary, and not run in church. So I stopped running in church and promised I would be good. But now I am getting adopted, and so he loved me because he is my friend, and so he went to teach my family so they can get ready for their temple work because my family can use all the help they can get. And because he loved the temple, mommy. He really did. I saw him there. So he went to be a missionary for my family, which is so nice, even though we are so sad.”
I cried again, those kids, and the things they say.
Oh, then he added, “and don’t worry, because Grandma Neen” (who is my mom, Jeanine) “she will give him all his birthday spankings until his mom and dad get his body back for the resurrection. He will need a lot of birthday spankings then!”
I really, really love them, and we are so excited for the adoption tomorrow, and moments like this – even when we are grieving – show me how very real our life is together.
Nathan is doing a show this week and last, getting paid to play violin for a local production of the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. In it, there is a line that says this:
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
I have thought about those lines a lot this week.
Today is court for my mom, the last hearing closing out her cases from when she was killed.
I think it’s part of why my grief was kept so stirred up these two years, because we had testimonies from ambulance drivers and highway patrolmen and court cases with truckers and the driver of the jeep.
But it would have been hard anyway.
Because grief knocks the wind out of you, knocks you over flat, steals all of life as you know it. There is no going back to before, no returning to life as it was. Everything is changed forever.
It just is.
It took me a long time to breathe again, after my parents died and we lost all our babies.
It took me a long time to want to breathe again.
But I did.
I remember when the rain was a comfort, when the storms raged my anger, when a hot bath couldn’t be hot enough for my sobs.
I remember the questions – still: what if I had not given her that car, if he had been more forgiving sooner, if I had not been so naughty, if I had driven this day.
I remember wanting to be angry at her for not wearing a seat belt, but also wanting to neither drown in my anger nor leave my final moments with her as punitive.
It wasn’t time for a told-you-so.
I remember seeing her in my dreams, the last hug I gave him, and the tiny fingers of my babies.
I remember my adventures with my mom, how crazy she was, and see how much of her is in me.
It has been two years of grieving, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
My grief is lifting, but will never be gone, because I will always miss them.
But it is shifting, and it is changing.
I am changing. I am softening again, after a year of bracing myself against the onslaught of hurt. I am trusting again, after not wanting people to try and replace my parents. I am adopting children because I love them, not because my own children came and left so quickly.
This is our life now, starting to live again after thinking I never could.
I see it in the way I turn to the sun, instead of away from it. I see it in how we rest, and how we play. I see it in the bright colors of my journal, where I have words again.
I think I am better, enough, that I am not going to court today.
I am not going because I don’t need (anymore) to hold on to her there.
Because she is not there, in court.
Because that is not her story, some cold paragraph in the news.
Her story, and their story, is the one we tell in those sacred moments we gather, creating a temple in space and time, and remember.
We were friends before, the mormons say, long before any of us came to earth. We see it in glimpses, I think, in moments of crisis, as if suddenly we are jolted awake and can almost remember.
You were there, a long time ago, with Heavenly Father.
You were His daughter, are His daughter, and He loves you so much.