Finley has been spending a large part of her days at Nana’s house. She goes to school in the morning, most days she asks me to drive her and requests that we not take “the secret way” which is code for an alley parents can take to have teachers pick the kids up and shepherd them into the building. We walk in hand-in-hand, kiss dramatically at the door and, and then off she goes for 2 hours at school and four hours at Nana’s. It was hard for me at first, equal parts guilt and jealousy swirling about the fours hours I might otherwise have her each day.
It’s become clear that she loves it. These hours in her day are separate from life with her sisters. She is her own little person, not vying for the spotlight, not struggling to keep up or demanding to do it her way. My guilt slipped away as she so proudly boasted about what she’d done. “We went to Celia’s Table.” or “We walked down to the field and decorated the tree,” then she giggled and covered her mouth, “No one will ever know who was doing those decorations on the tree.” Some times she’ll talk to me about Betty.
“Betty and I were watching a show, but then we were just talking. Betty was letting me teach her signs and she was teaching them to me too.” Betty is not an imaginary friend, Betty is a dear family friend who moved into Nana’s house a few months ago. The signs are bits of sign language, a holdover from when Betty was a teacher. For as long as the girls have known her, Betty has just been the lady with the little finger. She is missing the tip of one finger and this little thing has enchanted and awed the girls since their first meeting.
Now, just like the finger, the girls recognize and talk openly about Betty’s oxygen, about Betty’s weakness and, about Betty dying.
“Mom, Betty is going to die.” Fin said one day.
“I know baby.” I whispered softly.
“Why do people have to die?” she watched me as she said it.
“Well, we get tired. It usually takes a long time. Betty has been living for a really, long time, more than 90 years. Her body is getting tired,” I said.
We rode in silence. She chatters on but this and that, gazes out the window and sings along to the song playing on the radio. I watch her in the rearview mirror, my mind flirts with fretting, with filling the silence, but I don’t. The rest of the night and the next day passes without more talk of Betty. Thursday as we pull out of the driveway she says, “Mama, will Betty still be here on Monday or will she be died?” I don’t know how to answer and my instinct to fix things, protect, shield, explain away sputters. She’s watching me.
“Well, honey, I don’t know.”
“But she’s going to die, just maybe not this time yet, right?” her little face is scrunched up and her head is tilted to the side as she tries to work it out in her mind.
“That’s right, but you know what?” I ask.
“What?” She asks sitting forward in her seat.
“Betty has had some special times with you. Coming to Nana’s has meant that Betty has gotten to watch you and to play with you.”
“And to teach me about signing,” she chirped.
“And to teach you about signing, yes. I think that this time has been very special for Betty. I don’t know when she will die, but I am so glad that we’ve been having this time to be with her. She loves you girls.” Tears pricked at my eyes.
“Yeah, we have lots of love with Betty.” She turned back to the window. Little girl and old soul dance. Her independence has come in these hours with Nana, and with it a deep compassion.
Today we stood in the room with Betty as she slept. Her breathing was labored and her skin quite dark. She looked tiny in the bed, her special finger tucked beneath the blankets. I wanted to wake her, wanted to hear her raspy voice and watch her face light up at Finley. I longed to hear her say, “Well, Amanda, you and Sean sure have done a fantastic job with these girls,” and then she’d shake her head, do a soft whistle and say, “Oh, boy, that’s right.” But she was still. Her face turned toward the wall and eyes tight. As I scooped Finley into my arms, I tenderly moved the oxygen tube away from the little rocker. I smiled as Finley moved a strand of hair from my face and said, “There, that was nice mom. It won’t be so hard for Betty to breathe when we go.”