My 8 year old asked me this question yesterday while getting ready for bed. What's in the "box" is of course her baby brother's ashes. She has known this from the beginning but we hadn't talked about it for a while. Sometimes it's hard to know if she is just starting a conversation or if she genuinely doesn't know. She likes us to tell her stories from our lives and sometimes she will ask about those stories in a way that makes it seem like she doesn't remember hearing them 500 times. This is a different kind of story. A difficult and complicated story. No happy ending. His ashes. Baby's ashes. They just seem like two words that should never go together. I felt a bit panicky. Does she really not remember?? It seems so unlikely given how open I have tried to be with her since he died. Regardless, I had to answer. I can't imagine saying, "Never mind that." or "Mind your own business." or trying to change the subject - "Have you brushed your teeth?" I know why people might do this but I just can't do it to her. I never could. It provokes feelings inside me, feelings from childhood, of being lied to. Of not being told when important things were happening. Of being betrayed. We want her to trust that we will tell her when important things are happening in and to our family. These are her stories too, and bad things happen when you cut people off from their own stories.
"Those are Toren's ashes. Remember?"
"Yes I remember." She gives me a big smile. Whew. Ok she remembers. Glad that's ov...
"Can I see them?"
I have not looked at his ashes in a long time. I didn't want to at that moment, but I have no objection to her seeing them if she wants. She is building her own narrative about him. It's going to take her her whole life and it will probably never be convenient for anyone.
The box where we keep his ashes is a wooden box with carved plumerias along the top. Three months after he was born we went to Hawaii. It ended up being a difficult trip because of course we thought we were leaving our grief behind but it snuck into all our suitcases, even the carry-ons, when our backs were turned. I was pretending to be a 'normal' person without a dead baby, looking at souvenirs, and came across these beautiful boxes. Because my old brain had been replaced by this new, grieving brain, my first thought was, "They look like little coffins." An interesting feature is that they are not easy to open. There's a trick to them. You have to remove several parts and there are actually two lids.
She asked what the bigger pieces were amongst the powdery looking substance.
And then the moment passed. We put the puzzle box back together. I think I would like to have a little plaque engraved with his name. I have this persistent low-level worry that the box is going to get stolen. You see that in the news sometimes. Someone breaks into a house looking for valuables and inadvertently steals someone's ashes. It would devastate me.
It's been 5+ years of surreal moments - difficult, amazing, dreadfully sad, fascinating, shocking, enriching moments. Moments that teach, if you can just hold on to the teetering landscape and see them through. This conversation with her will never end. I wouldn't want it to. She will have many more questions about her brother throughout her life, none of which I can with any honesty say I look forward to. And yet it brings a closeness between us, a realness. It's truly a privilege to help her navigate this sibling relationship. And it's what I would be doing anyway.