My niece was 15 the first time I asked her. We were waiting for her Dad outside his Chicago high rise office. With a familiar fluid motion, she hoisted herself up onto the base of a concrete sculpture and sat, swinging her legs, while I stood beside her. I was unexpectedly nervous.
"I'm thinking about writing a book, Liamarie, about our time together when your mother died. How would you feel about that?" I began.
She looked down at me from her perch. "What would I have to do? I'm not sure what I remember." "Oh honey, you don't have to do anything," I said quickly. "I have lots of memories, plenty for both of us. And I've written some things. I shared them with your stepmother a few years ago, and it helped her get to know you. But it's your story I want to tell; what it was like to be so little when your mother died. And how we tried to help you as you grew up. So if I do this, I need you to be Ok with it."
She swung around to face me. "You know what people say to me? They say, 'You were lucky you were so little when your mother died and you don't really remember her, so it didn't affect you.'" She shook her head. "That makes me so, so angry. I may not remember much but it affected me a lot. If the book will help other little kids, you should write it."
That night she knocked on her parents' bedroom door at 3 am and crawled between them.
The body is the child's first teacher. Memories live in the muscles and bones that first experience the world, before language can ascribe meaning. One body to another, viscerally, kinesthetically, communication begins. With stroking and holding, a mother teaches her child love, and safety and comfort. And the child responds. They create memories without words.
So too, grief lives in those places. When those soothing sensations are suddenly gone, the pain is like withdrawal: the craving to find the feeling again, the ache of its absence, the awareness that no one else's touch, no matter how soothing, is just the same. A three year old has no words to describe what she feels, and the words that others offer make no sense. The young child has only her ache, her empty arms, her need to find the emotional umbilical cord that has disappeared. Knowing that Mama is dead is not a fact, it is a process, an evolving awareness that will take years to complete.
The night I asked about the book, Liamarie's body remembered, and like the 3 year old who had crawled into her father's bed so many times after her mother's death, once again she needed her foot resting against his leg, a hand gracing her new mother's shoulder, before she could sleep.
It would be another 5 years before there was a full draft of I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child. Five years of learning to be a writer, and shaping my notes and memories into the story of one child's grief, and its evolution from ages 3 to 15. Stories of birthdays and visits, and a child's journey into understanding. Finding the words to convey that every cognitive step forward is also a step deeper into loss; a step further into knowing what is missing in your life, and deciding what that means about you and your world. Weaving grief into resilience. It also became the story of my relationship with her Dad, a high spirted Latino New Yorker so different from me in temperament, terrified of single parenting and running from his sadness. Two things cemented us: our love for Martha and our commitment to Liamarie. Out of that we forged an alliance.
As I wrote, I struggled with coming out from behind my professional voice, the clinical psychologist aunt who narrates Liamarie's story. For this is also my story. The story of a deeply introverted soul whose grief travels a different path. For me, knowing is always there. The facts hide behind denial, or are numbed by the trauma, but I cannot deny them. The truth is horrific and irrevocable, waiting for me to find the resilience to bear it. Music, long abandoned, helps me find my way, even as one final, devastating truth comes to light: that fraudulent research sold us all on the unproven treatment that took my sister's life.
I was a psychologist with 20 years of experience when this happened to me. But when I looked for materials to guide me and my brother-in-law after Martha's death, I found nothing useful. Nothing that described the raw reality of a grieving caretaker trying to soothe an abandoned child. So I began to write. To comfort myself, and to record what I was learning as I improvised from my child therapy experience and parenting my own three children.
I never planned for this to become a book, but one afternoon, five years after her mother's death, Liamarie planted a seed. We were rough-housing on the couch, laughing and pushing at each other like puppies. I imagined her mother watching, laughing along with us. Liamarie must have seen a look cross my face, for suddenly she spoke. "It's Ok, Mary Beth," she patted my arm. "Mama wants us to be happy. I know it in my heart."
This is the story of how we got there.