The incomparable Miss Z.
Yesterday I had to try to explain to my precocious 5-yr-old niece why her Uncle Eli never comes over anymore. This was perhaps the most heart-breaking conversation I've had about my divorce yet, harder even, in some ways, than the things I've had to try to explain to Eliot about our situation.
I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me that she would notice his absence from family gatherings, and maybe the conversation was made more difficult by the fact that I was caught so off-guard.
It began with her asking me about Mumford, our family cat, and I sort of stammered that Mumford did not live at my house anymore. "He lives with Eli and Eliot now, not with me and Eliot in our new house," I said. And a confused look came over her face. Slowly, she came out with, "Yeah. I wanted Eli to be here for my birthday, but Mommy said he couldn't come because you and Eli weren't together anymore and I was like, 'What?!'" She made a face and spread her hands wide to show consternation.
I do adore this girl. She speaks and looks and acts so much like a smaller version of my little sister that it cracks me up. She's sassy as all get out, with a teenager's attitude and stubbornness. She comes up with the wildest sayings and ideas, and sometimes I think she's an absolute sage. She once told me, apropos of nothing, "Well, Rachel...sometimes it's whatever you want, and sometimes it's whatever you don't want." You aren't kidding, girlfriend.
A few months ago she told me, "Aunt Rachel, I just love Eliot so much, it's like he's my boyfriend or something." In truth they act more like brother and sister. They are always overjoyed to see one another. When I pull our car into my sister's drive, Z is out the door before I can even get Eliot's carseat straps unhooked. They immediately embrace and run off to play. Z acts like the big sister, showing Eliot how to jump on the trampoline ("jumpoline," in their vocabulary), or explaining the "right" way to play with a certain toy. But then, it won't be long before they are fussing and fighting over whose turn it is to drive the Barbie jeep. Z will try to physically haul Eliot out of the driver's seat and he, in turn, will get her in a headlock and bite her arm.
When it's time for our visit to end, however, they are back to loving on each other. Z fetches Eliot a chocolate covered granola bar from the kitchen pantry, asking, "You want a snack for the road, Eliot?" They hug and kiss and wave and Z watches from the door as we drive away down the road.
It's easy to forget sometimes that Z, with her mother hen tendencies toward Eliot, her extensive vocabulary, and her surprising insights, is still a 5 yr-old. She isn't just a tiny adult.
So when Z presented me with her confusion over her absent uncle, I said plainly that, yes, it was true that Eli and I weren't together anymore. I told her that Eliot lives sometimes with his Daddy and Mumford and sometimes with me. "Eliot has two houses now. Isn't that neat?," I proposed, hopefully.
She frowned and said, "I don't ever want MY daddy to leave."
And how could my heart not rise to my throat?
I assured her that her daddy wasn't going anywhere and explained that Eli is still and will always be Eliot's daddy and that he loves him very much. "Eliot still has his mommy and daddy," I said. "We just can't live together anymore."
Z twirled a few straggly strands of her long wild hair around one finger and concentrated on it for a moment. She cocked her head to the side and looked up at me.
"Well...why?" she asked, and the look on her face was so childlike, so innocent. Not like the face a kid gives you when he's asking why he can't wear his muddy boots to daycare when he knows perfectly well why. Z was looking at me with blank face, free of expectations, waiting patiently and trustingly for an answer from me that would make some kind of sense.
I didn't have one.
I pulled her little body onto my lap and squeezed her tight to me. I buried my face in her hair and muttered, "I don't know why, SnickleFritz. I just...don't know."
I don't have the answers. Sometimes I wish I did. All I could say when I pulled away and looked her in the eye was, "Well, Z...because sometimes it's whatever you want, and sometimes it's whatever you don't want."