Death has been a reoccurring topic around our house ever since my Uncle Leonard passed away in September. This morning, Isabelle asked if her cousins were driving up from Georgia for Thanksgiving, as they had two years ago. I told her they weren’t.
“Well, if Uncle Leonard was still alive, do you think he’d come this year even though he didn’t come last year?” Isabelle asked from the back seat.
My throat constricted as I drove south on the highway. “Yes, I think he would’ve come up this year, honey.”
“Why didn’t he come last year?” she asked.
“Because he was sick. He didn’t know he had cancer, but he was feeling terrible last fall,” I replied.
Then the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“Is Sophia still alive?”
I gripped the steering wheel tightly — bracing myself for the news I was about to deliver.
* * * * *
We met Sophia and her mom at a mommy-and-me type class about three months after Isabelle was born. Sophia looked itty-bitty the day I met her, though she was only a couple of months younger than Isabelle. I remember Sophia being a delightful baby who always seemed to be happy at the classes. As the months went on, and Sophia’s mom went back to work, we only saw her and her mother occasionally out in the community. The last time we saw them was when we were shopping at Target last winter. Sophia was much more talkative than Isabelle. As expected, neither girl remembered their earliest days together.
Imagine my surprise when I read one of Sophia’s mom’s Facebook updates less than five months ago, which informed about a nasty villain invading Sophia’s body. Sophia was in the hospital with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. I cried as I remembered our girls laying next to each other on their backs when they were just babies. Even though Sophia’s mom and I hadn’t been close friends, knowing that her parents might lose their only child shook me to my core. I left a comment — that I crafted over and over again before clicking “send” — on her Facebook post. A few hours later, Sophia’s mom wrote back and informed me my husband had been one of the doctors who visited Sophia (for something non-cancer related) soon after her diagnosis.
A few days after this revelation, I remember sharing one of Sophia’s mom’s Facebook posts with my husband. (He’s not the kind of doctor who mixes work with home-life, but I felt compelled to share what I knew with him. Isabelle must’ve seen me crying since I remember telling her about this little girl who she was a baby with and how she was gravely ill.
* * * * *
I found out Sophia passed away when I was waiting on an exceptionally long elevator line at NCTE last Thursday afternoon. Even though I had known the end of Sophia’s life was near, I let out an audible gasp and began to cry when I read her mom’s Facebook status update. The woman in line behind me asked if I was okay. I shared the basics with this unknown English teacher. She wrapped me in her arms. I pulled myself together and we talked about losing people before their time until we went our separate ways once we finally reached the 15th floor.
* * * * *
Marc and I had planned to tell Isabelle about Sophia’s passing tonight since I returned home from NCTE right before Isabelle’s bedtime last night. However, I couldn’t lie to Isabelle. So, right there, as I barrelled down the interstate, I answered Isabelle’s question.
I felt my voice get small, “Isabelle, Daddy and I planned to talk to you together tonight, but I want to be honest with you. We found out Sophia passed away when I was in St. Louis.”
“Oh,” she said.
I let the news sink in for what felt like an eternity before I spoke again. “How do you feel right now?”
“Sad,” she said.
“That’s how I feel too. Do you have anything you want to ask me?”
Isabelle thought for a minute. “What are her parents going to do now?”
I answered through my tears. “I don’t know, Isabelle, but I have a feeling they’re going to feel sad for a very long time.”
Finally, Isabelle, who recently donated the money in her Tzedakah box (100% her idea since she wanted to do something to “help kids like Sophia”.) to the children’s hospital, said: “Maybe no one else will die since I gave my money to help kids with cancer.”
I could barely speak after that. Despite being naive, it was the most genuine thing I’ve ever heard her wish for. Somehow, through my tears, I said, “I hope so, honey. You did a real mitzvah.”