My daughter’s small hand clenches mine as I push against the exit of the funeral home. The door seems to possess unnatural weight. She continues to grip my hand as we walk to our van in a distant corner of the crowded lot. The death of a child brings out the professional funeral-goers as well as the novices. She is letting me go, to be scooped up by her father and carried the rest of the way. If you are seven, and your best friend has been murdered in her bed, this is one of the things you need.
As we drive away, her father and I are taking turns asking how she is doing. Most children witness death for the first time when a pet dies, or an elderly relative passes, an aunt or uncle you met once at Thanksgiving. The mask of death is not worn as comfortably on a six year old in a short white casket. She is blinking too much, yet refusing to cry. She says she liked seeing her first grade teacher during summer vacation and says her friend would have liked the pictures all over the funeral home. She would have liked the white dress she was wearing in the casket that looked like a princess dress and that she would have liked the flowers and drawings all the kids from school left for her. Still holding back tears, she is telling us that she’s okay. Her friend would be sad to know she was crying.
We should take her home and give her popsicles and lemonade on the living room couch. Her father had planned to drop us at home and visit our oldest son and we impulsively decide to make the visit together. Our daughter hasn’t seen her autistic brother in months, and she actually smiles at the prospect. She misses her brother and being together on this day seems like a good idea to all three of us.
Applebee’s is crowded, but our son’s laughter peals conspicuously over the buzz of the restaurant. My husband and I became immune to public embarrassment years ago, and our daughter has learned the skill in accelerated fashion. A ketchup bottle is nabbed from the people a few booths down before we can stop him and he is pouring the entire contents over his food and eating it without seeming to swallow. He’s finished his food and taking his sister’s before she has even started. She is laughing so hard she starts to hiccup. Even though he is sixteen, he is cute to all of us, still like a toddler. Our son and daughter are coloring pictures together with restaurant crayons on paper place mats.
Visits with our son always end back in his bedroom at the ICF. We watch a movie with him until he decides it’s time for us to go. His room is littered with the stuffed cats he has collected during his sixteen years. Some are nearly furless from years of stroking and hugging. When you don’t really grow up, your toys struggle to weather the journey. His sister is asking to see a tiger up on the dresser. We fail to watch our son as we both divert attention to the toy she is asking to hold. We should know better. We should see the spectral signs of his agitation building. We know you need to follow his unwritten script and that bad things happen when you do not.
She is screaming and trying to catch her breath simultaneously. Adrenaline is coursing through her little body and she is already shaking in terror. Her body is telling her to fight or flee, but she can do neither. Her brother has her right bicep in his mouth, forcing his teeth through her flesh and muscle with the strength of the grown man he is. Her father and I are shouting to our son to let her go. If we pull her free, she will lose a piece of her arm. I am trying to pinch his nose together so he will briefly open his mouth for air. He is not letting go. I am pinching his cheeks on both sides trying to force his jaw open. His father is trying to gently overpower him. Once again, we are failing as parents.
Two of our son’s large male caretakers enter within moments that feel much longer. His lovely blue eyes glance up from his sister’s fragile arm. Our son is assessing the situation and releases her long enough for her to be cradled up high in her father’s arms. We are leaving the room intent on getting our little girl to safety. We hear our son’s cries of anger and confusion as the men keep him barricaded in his room. In moments, a three-person supine hold will be necessary to stop his attempt to come after us. He no longer wants to hurt his sister, if he ever truly did. We are leaving and breaking another unspoken rule. He wants us to say goodbye.
She is asking if she will be okay and is staring at the blood on her arm, at the bruise which is spreading in shades of pink, lavender and red. Our little girl believes she is going to die. In the span of a few days, her world has spiraled into one in which life itself can’t be taken for granted. Children are sometimes hurt by people they love and sometimes they die. Life lessons which should happen over the course of several decades have become her reality in less than a week.
We are waiting in the van while her father gets the needed first-aid from the drugstore. I am holding her face gently so she will not look at her arm. She tells me she is going to die like her friend and that it is okay. She asks me not to cry. I am now making her look at her arm, so she can see that she is hurt and bleeding, but she will heal. She is putting her tiny hand up to my cheek and asks why her brother would want to hurt her. We bandage her arm in gauze and an Ace bandage, after disinfecting the places where his teeth penetrated her flesh. She will wear her bandage for weeks after the cuts and bruises heal as a reminder that things broken can be fixed.
We are ten minutes from home when the call comes from staff at our son’s residence. He received a cut on his head while being restrained after we left. His wound was treated at the hospital and he was given a tranquilizer. He is calm now, but asking for Mom and Dad. We take our daughter home, help her out of her funeral dress, and give her popsicles and lemonade while she rests on the couch.