"Mommy, tomorrow we go see Mr. Map?"
I am trying to tuck her into bed after a second late summer night in a row. Freshly bathed and avoiding the actual tucking-into-the-bed part, her tiny voice lilts with excitement and joy.
"It's Matt, honey, not map. With T's like Tova." Force of habit escapes before I can curtail myself, caught off guard by the request and her dainty voice invoking his name. A deep breath, slow and quiet, to not draw attention to all that breath feebly masks.
"Oh. yeah," she giggles, "Mr. Matt wif T's like Tova. We go see him tomorrow?"
Another deep, steadying breath. It has been over a month since she's asked for him. Why are you asking now?
"Honey, we've talked about this. We can't go see Mr. Matt anymore."
"Hey, I know good idea, why if you call him on you phone?"
I look at her, legs criss-cross-applesauced on her bed, her elbows perched on her knees, palms upturned to the air above her.
"Yeah, I fink we do dat. Is good idea, Mom."
She nods assuredly as she side-eyes the middle distance between her small frame and her pillows leaning against the headboard of her bed. Her bottom lip is pinched in a way that mirrors my own when I make decisions, an impartial half-frown, a faux indifference utilized to appear suggestively ambivalent.
I hang my head. Her last IEP meeting labeled her as almost gifted, expected to be labeled as so before second grade. She is her mother's daughter and at times like these, it is exasperating.
One more deep breath. I sit down next to her on the edge of her bed.
"Why do you want to call Mr. Matt, baby?"
"'Cause we miss her birfday and I draw a princess for her wif my new art from Grandpa. I do dat for her."
"Who are you talking about, Tova? Whose birthday did we miss?"
"Da girl. My sister."
I never called her that. I was so careful not to, just in case of this, the thing we're living now, this fractured semblance of normal. To not do so, to acknowledge it and accept it as impending fact felt like a jinx, like tempting fate. Not once did I ever talk about him and her and them as if they were already family. I so staunchly called them friends. Because my redheaded offspring, she was already struggling with the concept of family and relationships and where babies come from and having once been in my belly but not allowed back there and but how do the babies get in your belly mommy and fuck, fuck it all because it didn't matter. She knew. Just like I knew that day they held hands and swung them back and forth while giggling inches from each other's faces, a two-girl Red Rover daring anyone to come over, demanding to sit next to each other at lunch leaving he and I the other side of the booth to share and neither one batted an eye because it just was.
It just was.
"Do you mean L-----?"
"Yeah, dat's her name, my sister! Wif the yellow hair. How many old is she? I forget 'cause she already had her birfday, but mine's not yet. So I maked her a picture to say sorry 'cause we forgetted."
She giggles, proud of herself, of her compassion and kindness, knowing I will praise her for them.
"Tova." My voice comes out sterner and sadder than I wanted it to, but it's enough that my little empath senses the change and she looks up at me with wide, innocent chocolate eyes, practically begging me to not ruin this reverie for her.
A deep sigh as I pull her into my lap.
"She's three now, because you're right, we missed her birthday. But sweetie, I can't call Mr. Matt anymore, either. I love that you want to give L----- a princess picture for her birthday and I bet she would have loved it. But honey, since we can't be around or talk to her daddy anymore, that means we can't talk to her anymore, too."
My girl presses her face into my chest at my heart as her open palm rests along the neckline of my tank top, as it used to when she was an infant. She is hiding from my words, literally trying to push them away as her tiny body tenses and shudders with disappointed sobs.
"I know, sweetie, I know. I'm so sorry, because I know you two really liked each other."
I bite my tongue from what I want to say next. You would have made awesome sisters.
"But why, Mommy? She no like us anymore?"
I have to remember to exhale.
"No, honey, I'm sure she does still like us. It has nothing to do with that. It has more to do with me and Mr. Matt and L-----'s mommy, not you, not your brother, not L-----, okay? You three kids are wonderful and fine and sometimes grown-ups just have to deal with hard things and it's not fun and I'm sorry that grown up things can make you sad."
She pulls back from my chest to look at my face.
"Like when you an' Daddy fight an' it make me so sad?"
I want to lie down on the twin bed and pass out, shut everything about this moment and these past two terrible months and all of the past year out and never let it back in, never let anything in ever again.
"Yes, bubalah, it's kind of like that."
She crawls out of my lap and towards her blankets.
"I all done talking now. You go now an' leave me alone? I have a long day."
Me too, child. Me too.
"Yes, baby, I'll go." Pause. "I love you and your big heart, Tova."
"I no have a big heart, you have a big heart!" She giggles as I swoop in for hugs-kisses-noses-bonks, our secret handshake, of sorts, for saying our goodbyes of varying degrees.
"I'll see you in the morning."
"I see you in the morning too, Mom. I love you."
"I love you too, sweetie. Goodnight."
I shut the door as I pass the threshold, turn on the hall light, creep down the stairs avoiding tripping on the cat running up them into my path as I descend, and make it all the way to my bedroom and throw myself onto my own, empty bed with my face buried deep into my pillow before I lose it in violent waves of muffled wails and sobs that wreak havoc upon me until I inevitably fall asleep from every form of complete and utter exhaustion.