By Lori Hall Steele
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 23, 2008
My son is having an age crisis. The morning after his fourth birthday, he shuffles into my bedroom, stands next to my cozy bed and there, in his Bob the Builder jammies, says he wants out of the system -- time, aging, mortality, the whole shebang. Not in so many words, of course.
"Am I 4?" Jack asks.
I confirm that he is.
"I want to be 3," he says, quite seriously.
He says he's "a little bit nervous about growing up." And though I get it -- who isn't? -- I ask why.
"When I'm 4," Jack asks, "will you still look after me?"
Will I? Of course, of course, of course. I stroke his blond curls and tell him he'll always be my baby. But it's as if he senses some disclaimer from the universe.
"Mommy?" he asks. "Will you still look after me when I'm a grown-up?"
Early childhood is supposed to be a Neverland, a time of invincible light and perpetual now. Yet some intimation of mortality has entered my small child's wonderland. In this simple question I see darkness. I see Dali clocks spinning and the creepy ravine where loneliness lives.
Maybe "Bambi" took him here. We'd recently watched the Disney classic, both for the first time. As deer, pastel flowers and cuddly animals filled the screen, I wasn't thinking that Bambi's mother dies. When I remembered, I wondered how I could stop the show without creating a crisis. As I contemplated possible distractions, my son started making gun noises, mimicking the sounds of "man" in Bambi's serene woods. Clearly we didn't have much time.
Why don't the good guys come and get hunters? asked Jack.
Good question. Better yet: Where was the remote?
As I looked around the room, the mother-son pair fled across a field and we heard a single gunshot. We saw Bambi running, alone. We saw him, waiting, alone, in the silent woods.
In the nanosecond that followed -- before I could make up some death-erasing fib -- my son turned, saw my wet eyes and said: "It's okay. The mommy is lost in Chicago. She'll be home soon."
Thank God! He saved me from having to outright lie or, worse, tell him the truth: Moms can vanish. We can turn around, and the people we love best won't be there. His theory let us bypass all that. It was comforting to see the world through his eyes: Death wasn't a possibility. His father had gone to Chicago recently, so maybe in Jack's preschooler mind, that's where misplaced parents go, absent momentarily but destined to come home.
As my son splashed in the bath that night, his daddy walked in, and I asked Jack to tell him about the movie. "The mommy got lost in Chicago," Jack said, then looked down into the bubbly water with nothing more to say. Afterward, as I wrapped him in his blue hooded towel that looks like a fish, and as we hugged and smash-kissed each other, Jack got serious.
He wanted to talk to me about something, he said. Bambi's mother didn't go to Chicago. The hunters got her.
Parents are always discovering their children, comprehending their depth and grace, learning from them, and seeing human nature refracted in their innocence. Whether we're 4 or 40, we have the same instinct: We desperately want to protect those we love. We don't want to give them knowledge that will break their hearts.
My son has peered over the edge of his protected zone -- the magical childhood landscape strewn with immortals and gods like Mommy, Daddy, Ariel and Rolie Polie Olie -- into the world where grown-ups live, a place where real goodbyes exist.
He had tried to shield me from the sadness of knowing that Bambi's mother was dead. And now it was my turn.
"Will you look after me when I'm a grown-up?"
On the morning after his fourth birthday, Jack waits for an answer. There's so much that can happen in this beautiful, crazy, too-mortal planet, and I know truth and its consequences are too much for a child. For my child. For this moment. He will learn the whole truth in time; he will learn that life is as capricious as it is constant. For now I want him to return safely to Neverland.
I tell him I'll always be here for him, one way or another. Always always always. Just like my mother is here for me. Just like I was there when he was 3. It is an impossible promise, a gamble with his trust. I secretly pray I don't let him down, not on this.
He looks at me for a second. Then his face lights up.
"Can we eat cake for breakfast?"