The other night at dinner, you asked, "How old will Celia be when I turn four?"
"Still one," I replied.
You stopped to consider that for a moment, then asked: "Is it because Avaleen died that there is a number between Celia and I?"
I understood immediately what you meant. You are three. Celia is one. Avaleen would be two.
"Yes," I said, a soft smile on my lips. "That's right sweetie."
"If Avaleen were here," you continued, "we could play the three bears. I would be Papa Bear and Avaleen would be Momma Bear and Celia would be Baby Bear."
"Yes," I said simply. "That is true."
I did not cry as I might have if we'd had this conversation a year or two ago, when my grief was still more raw. But I could have.
I felt sad in that moment, wishing that both of your sisters were here, wishing that you could play the three bears together and enjoy decades of adventures as a trio. But mostly, Ellie girl, I felt proud.
I love how you love your sister, even though you never met her, even though we didn't tell you about her until two years after she died, when we thought you were finally old enough to understand. Your eyes filled with tears then as you looked at your Daddy and I. "I want to go to Heaven to see her," you said as we wrapped you in our arms and all cried together. "I want my sister."
You still talk about her almost every day, and while I struggle to answer the question of how many kids we have, you don't hesitate. "There are three kids in our family," you say, to me and to strangers alike.
You may never understand what a gift those words are to me, Ellie girl. They are natural when you say them, absent of the awkwardness I feel when I try to articulate the same thing. I worry about what people will think, about whether or not Avaleen really "counts" since she died before she was even born, but you have understood from the beginning. She is one of us, and her death leaves a gap. A missing number between you and Celia. No Momma Bear for your imaginary play.
You are right, Ellie girl. There are three kids in our family. And I'm so glad you are one of them.