“Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday … ” my 5-year-old granddaughter Ella begins and we both laugh.
Her mom has been reading to her from A.A. Milne’s "The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh" and whenever Ella visits, she quotes a line like this one, or tells me jokes from the book. It's the very same copy my husband, Raja, and I gave her mom 30 years ago for her eighth birthday, when we were living in Paris.
The much-loved bear, whose favorite phrase, “Oh bother!” is usually spoken after he gets himself into a sticky situation, has become part of the Segran circle of life. Pooh Bear and his friends make the ordinary magical. Sometimes you need magic more than the ordinary.
On a Saturday in March, I felt a pea-like lump in my breast. An inch from the first one 22 years ago.
The following week, the doctor put me through a battery of tests. You have metastatic cancer, she said. It’s Stage 4. Terminal.
I told my daughter, Elizabeth, about the diagnosis.
“What do we tell Ella?” she asked. We threw around a couple of options but none seemed appropriate.
Sometimes you need magic more than the ordinary.
“Do we need to tell her anything at all?” I asked, thinking of the gradual progression of the disease.
“Maybe not,” she said.
When Ella came over for a visit after my first chemo infusion, I told her I needed to lie down for a while. “Are you ok, Ahmah? Mommy said you are sick,” she said. She followed me to bed and sat by my side reading "Clark the Shark" to keep me company.
“Ahmah is sick” is a euphemism. With each visit, I felt I needed to tell Ella the truth. That our time together is short and coming to an end. But what do I say? Is there a right time and a wrong time to say it?
Two decades ago, I had to explain to her mom that I had Stage 2B breast cancer which had spread to the lymph nodes, with a 50% recurrence rate after treatment. Elizabeth was 15.
“I don’t want you to die, Mommy,” she wept, holding on to me. Lord, help me, I cried inside. I don’t know how to do this. Can’t do this. Instead, I heard myself say without missing a beat: “You will both do fine. You and Papa are strong and resourceful, and you have each other. You’ll both do just fine.”
What is death to a 5-year-old?
The relationship with Ella may be different but the dire prognosis is sure.
What is death to a 5-year-old? For now, Ella lives in a world of sweet innocence. Like Pooh’s uncomplicated world where problems are resolved in a neat and humorous way. Will I be the one who causes her to lose that innocence?
And after I tell her — if I tell her — do we live differently? Do we still watch "The Octonauts" together? Give kiss attacks? Share knock-knock jokes? Snuggle and read together in bed?
“Any day spent with you is my favorite day. So, today is my new favorite day,” said Pooh to Piglet.
Maybe Ella sees death as temporary and reversible. Is there anything wrong with that? In the stories she reads or watches, characters who die often rise up again. But I won’t. Does she need to know that now?
She’s precocious so maybe she’ll ask, “Ahmah, what happens when you die?” “Ahmah, where do you go when you die?”
Maybe I should speak nothing of death. It’s complicated. I fear I might not be able to answer her questions. Then what? What if I break her heart? And that pain reflected on her face breaks mine? So I don’t speak of death. I’m a coward.
Ella leans on me while I read to her from A.A. Milne. I personalize this section because it means so much to me:
“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Ella?’ asked Ahmah.
“Even longer,” Ella answered.
“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever,” said Ahmah.
Uncharacteristically, before the reading is over, Ella disengages and shuts the book in my hands. She climbs onto my lap, rests her head on my bosom and fiddles with a loose thread in a buttonhole on my shirt. We sit together in silence, pondering the day when we can’t be together.