While our sweet daughter-in-law Sonia undergoes treatment for her Hodgkin’s lymphoma (recently– distressingly–returned, after eight years’ absence), we frequently have her two little girls for house guests. Raising these grandies for a short time is a way that I can help my kids get through this tough season. We’ve set up cozy beds for them–one in my cluttered studio, and one in a corner of our bedroom. During the weeks we have the girls at our house, I get so used to having those little beds occupied that when I see the empty beds, after they go back home, I ache a little.
Papa Andrew (our son) can stay with Sonia in the hospital, since we are here and can keep the girls. Sonia’s family lives close by also, so the girlies alternate stints at each of our places. Anya (6) and Eleanor (2) are achingly sweet and good, appreciative of the smallest things. Graham crackers with milk. A trip to the pool. Being read to. Drawing with chalk on the driveway. Touring the farm and identifying all the kitties, puppies, geese, ducks, chickens, etc. Picking fruit. Playing hide-and-seek with “Crazy Uncle Mack.”
Occasionally Anya–overtired from a trip to the pool today, for example–will begin to fray around the edges. She’ll speak sharply, albeit briefly, to her little sister. I understand this temptation quite well! My own younger sister was also impossibly cute, was four years younger than me as well, and also had hair that reminded one of dandelion fluff.
Anya’s routine is upside-down and she misses Mama and Papa, her room, the familiarity of a normal day at home. Her pretty little face is occasionally clouded with anger, and I’m pretty sure it’s not really the little sister she’s angry at.
But still. I remind her of the proper tone she ought to have with her little sister. She says something that makes me smile. “That’s just what Papa would say. I thought it would be more like a vacation here.”
I think for a moment, and finally say “We can’t take vacations from being good to others, honey.” She thinks about that for awhile. She’s just trying to keep it together, like I am, myself. To be brave and steady and optimistic. It’s tempting to ignore the infraction. To make allowances, because she knows about the cancer and it’s got to be scary for her. But I must remind her about being patient, even when little sister asks her the same question over and over and over.
And then I must hold her for a little while.
“I’m so tired of her questions,” she protests, quietly, searching my face. “When will she stop asking them?”
“Never, if you’re lucky,” I say. The aghast look on her face is priceless. “But don’t worry, someday she’ll ask different types of questions that won’t be so irritating.” I think about how quickly life zips by. In a heartbeat: Eleanor will be asking her sister questions like “Take me to the movie tonight, please??” “Can I borrow your new necklace?” “Want to share this donut with me?”
What a gift a little sister is, I remind Anya, who screws up her mouth and gazes at me with her mother’s lovely face. She isn’t quite sold on this idea yet. I have two little sisters, I continue, and I love them both to pieces, though we didn’t always get along quite that well either. Then we talk about Aunt Mollie and Aunt Annie and why they are so precious to me. And strategies to employ to have her own time and space, away from a very busy little sister who is fascinated by her every move and word.
She is no longer angry and is ready to go back outside and play. I give her permission, of course, to draw out her own big square on the driveway that is not to be bothered by Uncle Mack or little sister.
People watch me when I’m out and about, people who know what our family is going through, with the cancer and the chemo treatments and the babies being passed to grandparents for days at a time. I read concern on their faces. It’s terrible and heartbreaking that Sonia’s going through this again–we all pray that it will never happen again to this sweet little family. Here’s their story, if you’re curious. But I’m glad that I’m able to love on these little girls so intensely for awhile.
Now I understand the grandparents who invite grandkids to stay at their houses for a week at a time during the summer. My own grandparents would never have considered this, I think. It was a different time.
When you spend more than a few hours at a time with your grandchildren, you enter into a new realm of familiarity that is quite precious to me. Having both girls comfortable enough with me to crawl up into my lap is a luxury that I cling to, in this difficult season. Knowing when they need a cuddle, a snack, a couple of books read to them (always two for Ellie, one longer one for Anya) is something that I’m learning.
I raised six children, and I loved–and love–them all deeply. But from the moment your own baby is placed into your arms for the first time, you worry. About that little twinge that you don’t recognize. Does she have a fever? Shouldn’t he be crawling by now? What are we going to do about those teeth? And then later, from a homeschooling perspective: Is he reading/studying/writing the correct things? Am I providing a good balance of opportunities for work and play? What about that little twitch . . ? And for good reason.
But being an Amma is marveling over incredibly soft baby skin that you had nearly forgotten about. Enjoying the lovely moments of motherhood without the constant little worries. Not tiring of sweet little voices and being delighted by creative imaginations. Seeing my own self in the long fingers and toes, the longing to draw and to write and to dance. Joy over little delights of childhood that you had forgotten about. Reliving the joys of raising little ones, only without the constant worry of every little thing.
Besides . . . caring for the girls means that I’m actually doing something for my kids, and I’ve always preferred doing to sitting. They keep me very busy, and engaged, and distracted from worries that so easily encroach. I have to work my own creative muscle to keep a step or two in front of them. I’m raising two little girls, if only for a few days at a time. I’m not just worrying about what might be. I’m not wringing my hands over the future, which is what I would be doing if I weren’t so doggone busy right now. No. I can pray and I can feed little girls and I can read storybooks and change diapers, and cuddle and kiss soft little heads good-night.
I take such joy in spending time with these little girls that self-pity at my increased load has not once even occurred to me. (And believe me, self-pity is an easy default for me.) I just feel warm gratitude at time well spent with these girls. Not at the cancer. I hate the cancer. I’m done with the cancer. The cancer can go jump off a very high cliff, and soon.
And still. It will be a relief when this particular season draws to a close, and my son’s family is all back together again in their little home, with chemo and doctor visits and hospital stays all blessedly in the rear-view mirror, for good. That’s my prayer.
If you are the praying sort, I’d dearly welcome your prayers for my kiddos, too, and thank you from my heart for this.