"When is Aaron coming back?"
So asked my five-year-old niece, unbidden and unrelated to any prior conversation, as we drove home from a outing on Sunday. We were giving the new big sister twice over a few hours away from the blessedly chaotic environment that her home has become these past few weeks. Debbie and I were physically and mentally prepared for the typical, no longer quite familiar duties of watching a very active, spirited tot; silliness, kvetchiness, frequent requests for snacks, even more frequent bathroom trips.
But her utterly innocent question totally blew us away.
How to answer a child on the topic of death? What would her parents want us to say - and not to say? Before these concerns could even formulate themselves in my reeling mind, Debbie spoke up, with her unerring instinct that directness is always best in such cases:
"Aaron is not coming back, honey. Remember? He died. That means he went up to be with Hashem".
A vivid memory came back of a similar interaction I had had, weeks ago, on the very day that the babies had been born. I had driven my niece to the hospital to visit my sister-in-law, her mom. It was the first time I had been to that building - the children's wing of our local hospital - since Aaron had passed away there. Any chance of that association not being overwhelmingly vivid and intense, was shattered when my niece, upon catching first sight of the hospital, immediately chirped up:
"Oh, I know this place! This is Aaron's hospital!"
I don't even remember her ever having seen Aaron in the hospital. He was there so very briefly, and surely she didn't come to visit him during his final unconsciousness? But apparently the locale, if not Aaron's eventual fate, had become firmly fixed in this little girl's mind. As we were waiting for the elevator to take us downstairs after the visit, she persevered: "Can we visit Aaron here? Can we see his room?"
Do such questions have value to me, though the answers be intensely painful? Even as I'm compelled to share my adult perspective and knowledge with my niece, can I learn in turn from the innocence and simplicity behind her questions, from her unshakable notion that death is merely fleeting and ultimately reversible?
As I asked myself at Aaron's deathbed, will my belief in techiyas hameysim - the resurrection - ever become truly concrete and functional?
May I be given the strength and insight to learn the answers someday. Or if not, at least to continue asking the right questions.