My Dad’s death last month, following an intense, but relatively short battle with cancer, has been the most visceral, powerful experience of my life, bar none – and I include childbirth in that. Watching someone I loved so much take their last breath when, for a few precious minutes, it was just me, and him, alone, was a privilege both terrible and beautiful.
So what’s this got to do with adoption? Well, in the weeks since, feeling adrift in a world that doesn’t seem to notice my Dad’s not in it anymore, I’ve realised that our four-year-old daughter, Grace, ‘gets it’ – instinctively and profoundly. And I’ve also realised that, in showing my own vulnerability, she and I have found a new way to bond.
She’s not experienced bereavement before (as far as we know) but, with an unknown birth father, and only one letterbox contact from her birth mother during the last three years, she’s experienced a loss that’s surely pretty darn close. The two central figures of her life – those whose DNA she shares – must seem as resolutely gone from her life as my Dad has gone from mine.
We were upfront with both our girls (we have an older, birth daughter) from the outset about Dad’s illness and tried to answer any questions they had about death. They saw him in his last week of life, knowing that they were saying goodbye. I will never forget Dad’s heroic effort to lever himself upright in his hospice bed, giving them a cheery wave and smile, telling them he loved them. The grins on their faces told me they were reassured; that here was the grandad they still knew and loved.
Later, we gave them the option to come to his funeral – both chose not to, but have visited his grave, in private, since. And now life is back to (a new) normal. Our older daughter has breezed on, wrapped in her own 10-year-old concerns and excitements. But Grace has continued to watch, and take notice.
Like a few days ago, when a school mum acquaintance asked me how I was? “Oh, I’m fine, thanks,” I said, automatically. Grace looked from one to another of us and stated, firmly and loudly: “No – you’re NOT fine!”
Fair cop. Suddenly, she’s undercut the grown-up social niceties and I’m admitting she’s right, I’m not fine, but I’m coping okay. What I don’t say is that, partly, that’s because of Grace and the ‘permission’ she’s given me to grieve.
Soon after Dad’s funeral, back in our own home, she stuck her head in the fridge, came out again and declared; “You can always remember Grandad whenever you look in the fridge, Mum.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look”, she says, brandishing a small bottle of eye-drops pulled from some hidden recess, “he left these here when he last came to visit.”
And then the tears come, hot and unbidden, and I’m a sobbing heap in her little arms. She pats me on the back til I hiccup to a stop. “I’m sorry,” I say, ‘but I miss him so much and sometimes that makes me feel so sad I have to let it out.”
And then, my lightbulb moment: “And maybe you feel like that sometimes, too? When you think about your tummy mummy?”
She nods, slowly. “I feel sad when I think about her.”
“Because you miss her?”
“Because now I can’t remember ever being with her.”
Grace has always carefully guarded against showing emotional vulnerability. On coming to live with us, leaving her much-loved and loving foster family home, she didn’t shed a tear. On her first day at school, with other kids in the line-up succumbing, domino-style, to hysterical wailing, she stared, dry-eyed and straight ahead, and angrily shook off my attempted embrace.
Now, it seems, she’s fascinated by my tears. She asks me why we cry? I say there are many reasons – sometimes when we’re really happy, or occasionally when the wind blows in our eye. Sometimes, when we’re sad, as a way of letting those sad feelings out. “What happens if we don’t let them out? “ she says. “Well, maybe they just build up somewhere inside us and that can make us feel worse. Or they come out in a different way – like feeling really angry, or frightened, perhaps.”
A few days after the fridge moment, we’re walking along the street when she asks me to close my eyes. When I open them, she’s holding out a beautiful, red, autumn leaf. “Grandad sent you this,” she says, scanning my face closely .
I say that’s lovely – and did he say anything when he sent it?
“Yes, he said: ‘Tell your mum that I’m an angel now – and I love her.’”
A pause, then: “Are you crying?”
And I am, but not uncontrollably. So I smile and say yes but, actually, they’re happy/sad tears because that’s just such a lovely present and message to get.
A few days later, the strangest thing. She comes home from school with a newly chosen reading book from their stock. It has a huge cartoon drawing of a young great white shark on the front (she likes sharks) and I read it to her that night, at bedtime. The youngster can’t find his best friend fish anywhere in the ocean – he’s just… gone. He ropes in his mum to help him look, with no success. Mum eventually, and gently, suggests, that the friend will not be found and that this will be hard, and sad, for the young shark to accept. But, she says, when we lose a loved one, they’re not really lost to us – because we keep them with us, safe, in our hearts.
By now, I can hardly see the words through my tears. I turn to Grace at the end and say” “Shall we do that, too? Keep my Dad and your tummy mummy safe in our hearts?”
She nods and I see that, silently, but openly, she’s crying, too. And then we hold each other, and pat each other on the back, until the tears stop.