I knew our next story time would be a “thing” as soon as I’d seen the cover, a child holding a baby. And I knew that Malik picked it for a reason. He was missing his brother.
Jin Woo is a children’s book about an American family adopting a newborn from Asia. It chronicles all the excitement that comes with bringing the baby home for both parents and their children.
A few weeks earlier, I’d purchased a similar book, Welcome to the Party by Gabrielle Union. The cover showed her holding Baby Kaavia in the air with a joyous smile on her face. I thought nothing of it, only that there were black people on the cover and representation mattered. As I eagerly opened the book for story time, I teared up at the first page. I quickly pulled it together, not wanting to trigger Mahari. She’s a mean little thing when she sees her mommy cry over her little brother.
However, reading Jin Woo was a little different. Mahari wasn’t in the room. She’d thrown a fit a few minutes before story time. Something about not being able to watch enough television (although she’d been home for almost two weeks on quarantine and tv was the last thing she needed more of), so I sent her to bed early. I just didn’t have the patience that night. It was also the 25th, the day our lives changed forever. I hadn’t looked at a calendar, but it’s as if my body always knows.
I did my final mom duties around the house while Malik followed me around before we settled into my bed for our nightly ritual.
As I began to read, I realized I was out of breath. I stopped reading, deeply inhaled and blew the breath out, attempting to give my body time to pull it together. It didn’t work, so I just pushed through and turned the page to read about Jin Woo’s mother telling him that he was exceptional and kissing his fat cheeks.
I thought of Three’s cheeks, the way they felt when I ran my thumbs against them. Soft. Warm the first night. Colder as each day passed. I thought about what it would’ve been like if he got to come home with us. I thought of everything all at once, but tried to keep the tears at bay so that I could continue for Malik.
On the next page, Jin Woo’s parents encouraged his big brother to sit down so that he could hold him for the first time. I thought of Malik and how he would’ve been an amazing big brother, just like he is now.
I cried the whole way through the story. From them riding home with the baby in the car seat, to them introducing him to loved ones, and especially when they gathered around his crib to watch him smile and coo. Three was always frowning in his ultrasounds, but I know that we would’ve been obsessed with standing around his pack n play, watching him mean mug. He would have been so loved.
Malik hugged me the whole time as I read to him. Tripping over my words, ugly face crying, stopping to take deep breaths and collect myself. He said “It’s okay, mommy. We can finish it tomorrow.” But I kept going because dammit, we were going to finish that book!
When he bought it home, he was so excited. His eyes lit up as he pulled it out of his bookbag. “Mommy, look at this book! And the baby! Can we read it tonight?” I’d reluctantly said yes, proceeded to avoid it for a week, and he eventually forgot about it.
He was cleaning his room when he rediscovered the book. “Aw man, tomorrow’s library day and we didn’t get to read my book!”
I cringed inside and told him we would read it that night. Now, what did I go and do that for?
I read that stupid book because Malik deserved it. He deserved to feel close to his little brother. He deserved to know what he missed out on. He deserved to feel what he needed to feel without censoring himself for his little sister and her coping mechanism that always disrupted his expression. He deserved all of that, no matter how uncomfortable it was for me. And in the middle of me struggling to read a bedtime story, something I do effortlessly every single night, he said “it’s okay Mommy, we all miss baby brother”. I often have to remind myself of that.
We always pray after we’re done with story time, but I couldn’t bring myself to start it off. I would’ve opened my mouth and more tears would’ve fallen. So, I asked Malik to pray that night. He yawned, snuggled up to me, and said okay.
“Dear Lord, thank you for another wonderful day. And thank you for my family. And my baby brother. I miss him. I wish I got to meet him. But I know he’s okay. Please help me to have a good day at school tomorrow. I love you. And baby brother. And I love my family, so much. Amen.”
Such a a beautiful, innocent prayer.
I gave him a hug, assured him that I was okay, and sent him off to bed. I don’t think he believed me. He came back a million times to give me hugs and kisses. To tell me that I need rest so I’m not tired tomorrow. To be there for me when I was feeling as if I couldn’t be any more alone in this bubble. That’s my Liky.
He came back one last time to say “I wish Mahari could’ve been there for story time.”
Honestly, I was relieved that she wasn’t there. Her coping mechanism, the anger, the wall she has up is too much to bear sometimes. It often makes Malik upset when Mahari starts Mahari-ing during our moments. A little confused, I asked why. He replied, “because I love her, too.” Translation: “She’s my sister and she’s hurting too, mommy.”
Kids, man. Right when I think they can’t handle my pain, when I’m on the brink of completely breaking down, they give me grace. They give each other grace. They remind me that they’re resilient, intuitive, compassionate. That they’re in pain too. They remind me that I don’t need to be strong all the time. Most importantly, they remind me that we’re a family and we need each other.
I can’t imagine what goes through their tiny heads when they’re thinking of their brother. What I do know, is that their mother and her well-being is on their mind. That they’re feeling something, even when I’m not always mindful of their grief. And I now know how strong they are.
At the tender age of 7, my son comforted me through what most can’t understand. He didn’t interrupt me; he gave me an out, but didn’t pressure me to take it. He empathized with me. He checked on me and told me to get some rest. That’s all I ever need. Someone to sit with me while I come undone, with no expectations, only encouragement to rest. But it breaks my heart that he was only able to do all of that because he lost someone. He knew what it was like to have your world turned upside down unexpectedly. He knew what it felt like to be excited about something that would never come to fruition.
Kids experience deep hurt. Kids are triggered. Kids grieve. I’ll do my best to continue to create a safe space for us to express ourselves, and sometimes I’ll miss the mark. That’s okay. None of us know what to do here, except for Malik it seems. From him, I’ve learned to give grace, that it’s not just about me, and that Mahari’s process is her process. I’ve learned that we have to give kids more credit.
I’m thankful for my sons kind heart. I’m learning to deal with my daughters anger. My old therapist said “she had a loss so big her little brain doesn’t know what to do”. I can’t imagine being five and six and walking in their shoes. I think I’d have been an emotional, confused, unstable wreck. I’m not sure I’d have shown as much tact as they have.
Perhaps, this entire time they’ve been carrying me. But one day I’ll be stronger and we’ll be better for it. In the meantime, we’ll keep having story time, we’ll keep praying and tackling the hard moments. We’ll continue to love on one another and we’ll continue giving each other grace. And we will always remember Three, Malik will make sure of it.