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Telling the Real, Real Truth

By Marjorie Williams
Thursday, December 13, 2001; Page A37

Both my kids ask in the same week, with the faultless sensor for parental vulnerability that is bundled into every child's operating system. Alice, at 6, has probably found her curiosity on the playground; Willie, a scientist at 8, is hard at work on the dubious physics of reindeer travel. But in their separate ways, both pursue the matter with prosecutorial zeal: Mommy, isn't Santa really you?

It would be hard to overstate how much I want to evade the question. Their faces hold such tension as they ask, such a desire to be wrong. But really my dismay is rooted in practice: They are catching me at a time when I'm fed up with telling them the truth.

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The common wisdom about how to discuss cancer with your children says, above all, that you should be honest. And so we have tried to be: When will you get better, Mommy? (I don't know, but I'm working on it as hard as I can.) Will it be this year? (No, not this year.) If you don't get better this year, you'll definitely get better next year, right? (We hope so, but not definitely.) To turn your children loose in the same uncertainty that wakes you at 4 in the morning feels exactly like cruelty. But amid all the available advice, the piece that makes the most visceral sense to me is the proposition that kids shouldn't have to be vigilant, sentenced constantly to seek out the particulars of a danger they're dimly aware of.

Yet the moments when one of them asks me direct questions about my survival are easily among the most anxious of my life. I have rehearsed all the good counsel on how to answer in a way that blends realism with hope, truth with optimism -- letting their questions guide us; stressing the good news of how my treatment is going, while never flatly denying the real possibility of failure. Yet I often feel false as I do it: As so many parents have discovered in discussing Sept. 11 with their kids, it feels hugely unnatural to express true uncertainty about something vital to a child's sense of safety. I suspect I project equivocation instead, and imagine that, in my daughter's head, it is instantly boiled down to a baffling essence: On the one hand, on the other hand. Mommy's getting better, Mommy might die. The tension of it probably matches the bipolar strangeness of having a mother in chemotherapy, wan and exhausted one week, full of energy the next.

Yet their hunger for the truth is palpable. There are days when they ask me constant, minor questions on unrelated matters, queries that seem designed to triple-check the calibrations of their crucial inner polygraphs. Where before I would have told a tiny lie to ease my daughter past a difficult moment -- No, I didn't hear when your brother just said out loud what you got me for Christmas -- I know this will no longer fly. She follows up too fiercely: "Is that the real, real truth you're telling me?"

So when they press me on the subject of Santa, I know it for the test it is. It seems such a huge, sad sacrifice, this consigning of the fantasy of Christmas to the cause of security. More than ever, I wish they would settle for the wormy playbook of parental good cheer. (What do you think? Well, some people think Santa's real, and some people don't!) But finally I square myself to the task, and ask them: What do they hope the answer is? They both hope Santa is real. I tell them the truth anyway.

Their disappointment brings me all the familiar sadness and reflexive guilt. But it turns out that hard things do get easier with practice. Because next I find myself saying, with an ease that surprises me, that we can have it both ways: We can know what we know but also pretend he's real, and then he'll come on Christmas for as many years as we want him to.

Alice decides on the spot that Santa's nonexistence is no bar to his bringing her a Barbie Grand Hotel this year. Willie savors the adult-flavored chance to clear up some of the ancillary mysteries (yes, Mom and Dad eat the Oreos you leave out for Santa, but the carrots go back in the fridge). But the next day he goes back to talking about whether Santa will fill a stocking for the cat.

If this had been a normal year, I couldn't have asserted, with such authority, that it is feasible to live two possibilities at once. Facing down the Santa issue reminds me that every time I step up to one of those big, choking questions about the future, my anxiety eventually turns to relief. You can almost see the children choose which parts they can take on right now, which to jettison. And then off they run, in search of the rich oblivion of Sponge Bob and baseball. I hope, as they go, that somewhere in them another little muscle of trust has been fed. That is the best safety I have to offer right now.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company