The world feels different when someone you love is no longer in it. How you prepare a 4-year-old for that, I have no idea.

Angie’s step-grandfather died recently, marking it the first time a person in her life has passed away. I knew his death was coming; he had been a cancer patient for more than five years. It began in his kidney and spread to other parts of his body, including his brain.

“Pepe is sick,” I told Angie when his condition took a turn for the worst. “He’s not going to get any better.”

“Well, maybe he could just have some quiet time or get a drink of water to feel better,” she said.

“Not this time, honey,” I said. “He’s very sick.”

His name was Larry but Angie called him Pepe, which is French for “Grandpa.” My former stepfather-in-law was a high school guidance counselor who geared up like Lance Armstrong for long bicycle rides. He had incredible stamina, right up until cancer got the best of him.

The last time we saw Pepe was in October, when Angie and I drove to Vermont to visit him and Grandma at their vacation home. His face was swollen because of his medication, and he was in great pain from a shingles infection he had contracted after cancer treatments weakened his immune system.

During that visit, all four of us sat by the fireplace in the living room, where Angie colored in a coloring book at the coffee table until well past her bedtime. Larry and I chatted about the nuthatches that were visiting his backyard feeders and discussed my adventure into graduate school. We talked about the myriad of medications he had tried in an effort to keep cancer from spreading.

But it spread anyway.

A few months later, Larry decided to stop pursuing treatments. He chose to let whatever was going to happen, happen.

And it happened on a Wednesday — not in Vermont, but at his home in Rhode Island — with his family by his side.

When I got the news, I knew I had to tell Angie.

“Honey, Mama has something to tell you,” I said to her that evening. We sat cross-legged on her bed, wearing our pajamas. “Pepe died.”

Her mouth curled into an O of surprise, but then she said, “I thought that was going to happen.”

“You did?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered. “I thought he was so sick that he would die.”

She was quiet. I wasn’t sure she understood.

“Do you know what ‘die’ means?” I asked her.

“Gone. Not alive,” she said.

“Yes, that’s right,” I told her. “We won’t see Pepe anymore, but we can think about him and all the fun times we had with him.”

That must have been exactly what she was doing, because she walked out of the bedroom and returned with a piece of purple construction paper and an orange crayon. She drew a picture of herself with Pepe, holding hands in a sea of hearts.

“Mama, were you surprised that he died?” Angie asked.

“Umm, yes,” I answered. It was true; I thought that if anyone could beat cancer, it would have been Pepe.

“I’m sad about it,” she said.

“I’m sad about it, too,” I told her.

Angie had the information, the words about Pepe’s death. But the magnitude of his passing will probably come later — the first time she visits her Grandma’s house and doesn’t see Pepe sitting in his favorite recliner, or the next time a birthday card comes and it has only one signature.

Angie might understand that dead means gone, but I doubt she comprehends the finality of death. It’s a difficult thing to understand, even for a grownup.

Larry was only 61. Before he died, he had attended one son’s wedding and celebrated the birth of his sixth grandchild. He had a lot more living to do, but cancer took that away.

I don’t know how to explain to Angie why something as awful as cancer exists. I don’t know why good people get sick. I don’t know why we can’t make them better.

“Do you have any more questions about Pepe?” I asked Angie.

“No,” she said. She set her drawings upon the blue blanket and stood in the middle of her bed. She lifted her face toward the ceiling and called out a special message to Pepe, wherever he might be.

“I visited you,” she said. “I had fun with you. I loved you. Goodbye.”

Wendy Fontaine’s “Party of Two” column appears the first and third Sundays of the month. Her e-mail address is: [email protected] Follow Party of Two on Facebook and read her blog at PerseveringParents.com.


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