Third grade is when we first see a light in the fog.
On the second day of third grade Dora befriends a new fourth-grader named Laura. Within weeks it becomes clear that Laura is “the one”, Dora’s first true BFF, with extra bonus points for rhyming names.
Laura matches Dora’s zeal jump for jump. She laughs at the same things Dora finds funny, and she moves easily into speaking their made-up language, which they call “Frop”. The two of them just get each other and I am over the moon.
Parent/teacher conferences go smoothly all year. Dora’s teacher is storybook gentle and happily accommodates Dora’s need for movement, even providing her with a set of “finger fidgets” to keep in desk.
Not a word about writing troubles is mentioned.
At home, Dora still can’t fall asleep alone but she is finally falling asleep in her own bed instead of ours. While The Bedtime Ritual is longer than a coronation and still requires the presence of either David or I until she is officially Asleep, we’ll take it.
She is still in constant motion, but another year will pass before I will notice that Dora’s level of physical activity does not seem age-appropriate. Right now it doesn’t matter. Dora is energetic, that’s just who she is. Her teacher is not complaining and for the dear love of God our baby girl has a friend.
We are turning a corner, David and I say to each other. The kid’s gonna be alright after all.
We also say, She’s so advanced, it makes total sense she’s befriended an older kid.
In the spring Laura’s parents divorce, and on the last day of school Laura moves to a town located four hours away by car. Dora cries almost daily for close to twelve weeks. She is back to sleeping in our bed. We assume this is normal: a phase.
By week thirteen I’m not so sure. The Internet offers zero guidelines for developmentally appropriate stages of grief, just a bunch of filler content search results confirming kids get sad and all kids are sad in different ways, with the final disclaimer that “Every kid is different!” Thanks, Internet Einsteins.
One night in September, in another weak attempt to comfort Dora as she cries, I repeat all the things David and I have said a million times in a million ways since Laura moved; you’ll find another friend, maybe not a friend exactly like Laura but someone just as special, you can still see Laura sometimes, let’s call her tomorrow, et cetera.
It’s weird, David and I remark to each other, how sad Dora is yet what little interest she has in emailing or video-calling Laura.
“It’s almost like she sort of just wants to be sad,” I say. I say it with a question mark but somewhere deep inside I’m aware that I’m stating a fact.
As I speak tonight I hear my words through Dora’s ears and I know they are hollow and wrong for Dora. They are, I think, the right words for other kids, but they are not right for Dora.
But I’m scared to toss aside the silver-lining approach in favor of leveling with her about the entire cosmic joke of being human, that our lives are seasoned with joy and miracles and also cruelty and terror. I am afraid to say this because she seems so sad, almost irretrievably sad that hearing the Truth will just turn her goth and maybe she will cut herself, or worse.
What are the right words for Dora?
She looks up at me with wet eyes, pleading, “Oh Mama, I just want to go home.”
“But we are home, baby.”
“No, I mean back. I want to go back to heaven.” She dissolves in a river of tears.
I have never been stabbed, but now I know what it feels like.
My body instinctively takes all emotions completely offline. Then, it hires an extraordinarily calm actor to play Me, just for now, until we figure out how to process this. The actor, Calliou’s mother again, speaks gently and says Good, Parenting Things until Dora falls asleep.
When I leave Dora’s room, I enter my closet, drop to my knees and sob until I think I might throw up.
This is not normal.
In my bones I am aware that this is not a normal level of grief for a nine year-old.
I am so terrified by these words that I tell no one, not David, not my closest girlfriends.
If I trap her words inside, they might wither and disappear forever. If I don’t hide them, if I repeat Dora’s words aloud, to another human, her words become an Event to which Attention Must Be Paid.
And what wheels would be set in motion then?
A shoebox full of pill bottles with her name on them, each bottle plastered with red- and orange label warnings?
A glassy-eyed facsimile of Dora?
A cameo in some sad documentary about mentally ill children, something where I am courageous and teary-eyed and saying things like, “We always knew she was different,” and, “You just do what you have to do for your kids.”