My daughters never looked alike: one resembled mom, the second takes after dad. One was pensive, creative and forever clutching a sketchpad; the other is bolder, more impetuous, a practical Ms. Fix-it commandeering electronics of all kinds and swiftly repairing a vacuum cleaner while her mom flounders on the sidelines.
Marissa is in fourth grade; she’s the same age as Natasha was when she had recovered from her brain tumor treatment and was happy and apparently healthy, before the beast came back and gradually sucked out her joyfulness and kookiness and put the brakes on the high-speed velocity in which she lived her life.
At 9, both daughters express happiness in the same ways. This is what it looked like four years ago when Natasha was 9 and what it looks like for Marissa today: cartwheeling at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night because that final burst of energy must be unleashed; stripping down to swimsuits on a chilly February afternoon because when isn’t it fun to splash in the ocean; fierce hugging and maniacal laughter at a chance encounter with a BFF; the conviction that paradise is the place where ice cream of every flavor is available for the price of a compliant parent and $1.75.
There’s another side to 9, one that foreshadows the preteen years, which are not so far ahead: the locked journal with “private” scrawled on its cover, the closed door and urgent whispers when a playdate visits and the badgering for a cell phone, the ultimate symbol of emerging independence. We never got the preteen experience with Natasha, because when her tumor recurred she drew closer to her parents rather than further apart. With Marissa, it will be different.
“Don’t be surprised if Marissa doesn’t talk about her sister,” a hospital chaplain had warned us when Natasha died. That statement has proven to be largely true. So much is unspoken about Marissa’s grief. We know that Marissa mourns the sister in whose arms she would sleep, whose presence was excitedly awaited at the end of a school day, whose praise made her light up. Many siblings tolerate the other; my children’s love for each other was celebrated every day, in part probably because Marissa sensed her sister’s life was in jeopardy.
“You miss Natasha, don’t you?” I say as my younger daughter slips on her sister’s clothes: the frayed blue jeans, purple patterned T-shirt and pink parka. “Yes. And I don’t want to talk about her,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. Marissa’s only concession to her loss is her pursuit of rainbows, a sign that her sister is greeting her from a place called heaven, she tells us.
While Marissa undergoes a metamorphosis as she edges toward preteenhood, my parenting role is also in transition. I no longer walk with one hand linked through my sick daughter’s arm and the other holding onto Marissa. After close to 14 years of motherhood, both of my hands are sometimes strangely free. When Natasha was still alive, Marissa needed me because there was so little of me left over after attending to the needs of a critically sick child. Now that I’m all hers, she realizes that having me in the background is sufficient — at least for some of the time.
Last week Marissa returned from camping, an eagerly anticipated two-night trip. “I missed you!” I say when I see her waiting for me to take her home. “Did you miss me, just a tiny bit?”
“No. I missed you a lot,” she says and I notice her red-rimmed eyes. (Is she tired or has she been crying?)
Tight hugs are exchanged as we set off for the car.
“What do you think I saw there? Guess!”
“Well, I heard that there was a red-tailed hawk and didn’t you see seals?”
“No, no, no! I saw a rainbow. A RAINBOW!
And I said, ‘Hello Natasha!’”
And we drive home. My younger daughter is happy for this “gift” from her sister and I am happy — bittersweet happy — to hear the joy in her voice as she says Natasha’s name.