Be my seatbelt, Mommy.
The words come from a little voice in the dark, the small body lying next to yours in an unfamiliar hotel room bed. She’s almost too tired to make the words, but you can feel her limbs relax as you stretch out an arm and encircle her. She will sleep now.
But you? You won’t sleep. You’ll go numb on one side, lying wakeful in the darkness, thinking about it all. The funeral home visitation. The funeral mass. How to keep a five-year-old rested, fed, happy, in this unfamiliar city, far from home, when she barely grasps what’s happening. When she senses the sadness of everyone – of Daddy, of Baba and Dido, of her aunts and uncles and cousins – but doesn’t quite know where the emotion comes from or what to do with it. She knows cancer is a sickness, that her chocha has died; but death, to her, is still a nebulous concept, hazy around the edges and coloured by Disneyfied images of Moana’s grandmother returning as a manta ray. What can you say that will make it make sense to her when it doesn’t make sense, can’t make sense, may not ever make sense.
You won’t sleep. Not much.
But you know she will, resting safely in the seatbelt of your arm. You tighten your grip, just a little, and pray – if this vaguely formed wish in your heart can be called a prayer – that your “seatbelt” will be enough. Even while knowing it won’t.
You can’t stop it. Any of it.
You can’t stop cancer, or illness, or death.
You can’t stop this world from reaching her.
You can’t stop anything. You can’t stop the big things: the car accidents and plane crashes and random acts of violence. You can’t stop the not-so-big-but-still-big-in-her-world things: the hurt feelings when her friend doesn’t want to play with her; the disappointment of realizing she missed the school carnival because of this trip; the homesickness of being here in this hotel room without her stuffies, without her bed, without her treasured pink-and-purple quilt.
You can’t stop the grief. Not the grief right here, right now, in her own family. Not the grief behind the news headlines that shake the world. Earthquake. Flood. Mass shooting.
You can’t make any of it okay for her when it so clearly isn’t okay.
It’s a helpless feeling, that moment in the darkness when you realize that you can’t protect the little fledgling under your wing from all the fears and tears and dangers that lurk out there somewhere, in the great wide world that lies beyond this little cocoon of safety in the Holiday Inn. And you know that this is only the beginning, that the more your little bird grows up and starts to fly on her own, the less control you’ll have of her world.
You know it will feel different in daylight. That it’s a joyous thing to watch this small being of yours grow up into her own capable, independent little person. You know you will find reasons to smile, and laugh, and enjoy the moments every step of the way as five becomes six and six becomes seven, and ten, and twelve, and then before you know it she’s graduating from high school and …
But your mind won’t turn off. Not tonight.
Tonight you will just hold a small body next to yours with all the warmth and strength and love in your being. You will whisper into the tiny ear, as you do every bedtime, “I love you to the moon and back.”
You will hold the seatbelt of your arm where it needs to be, wrapped snugly around the small person for whom you are safety, and comfort, and security, and home.
It will not make the tears stop. But tonight, just for now, it's enough.
You’re enough. You can sleep.