The assignment at preschool was simple: draw a picture of your family. The teacher stapled 15 little pieces of paper on the bulletin board outside of the classroom once the drawings were finished. There were big families and small families. Families with pets, babies, and families that looked like tiny aliens.
Our family, drawn on a piece of neon green paper with an orange marker, looked like your average stick-figure family. Mama on one side with spiky hair, Sam in the middle, tiny, and Dada on his other side, bald, and a bit taller than the two of us. Above our heads two orbs hovered, spirals of orange marker lines, with helpful notes from the teacher that Sam must have dictated: “My great-grandmother.” And over the other orb: “Grand-pap, my dad’s dad. He was special to me.”
Both great-grandma—my grandmother, whom we called “Dedi”—and grand-pap have been dead for more than two years. Sam met both of them a handful of times when he was a baby, then maybe later when he was 1, then maybe once more when he was 2-and-a-half. Yet, it seems, their orbs keep lingering in his mind and right over our family.
Every parent has that one icky thing he or she can’t deal with it. For me, it was the belly button stub. Give me a baby’s first black poop, or vomit, or blood—I am fine. But that one piece of dead skin dangling from my baby’s belly sent me screaming out of the room. That was probably the last time I was afforded the luxury of not dealing with something just because it made me uncomfortable.
There have been a lot of deaths in our family and circle of friends over the past two years. We have sheltered Sam from most of it—explained that someone died, but we never took him to a funeral or discussed much of what was going on when he was in the room. We answered his questions, but tried to not make a big deal out of death in front of him. Life goes on, after all.
I suppose it is normal for kids to be curious about death, just like they are curious about other great mysteries in life: How did I get into your belly? How did I come out? Why is the sky blue? What is snow? Does this fit in my nose?
And us, adults—despite our discomfort around the topic—have to provide truthful, clear answers to what is unimaginable and in a way unexplainable. Not wanting to muddle the finality of death and not subscribing to any religious doctrine, we never told Sam that someone went to heaven, or that they are in the sky, or living in any other alternate reality. We used the words—sickness, death, forever—but our explanations of what that actually means left us befuddled. Define “never” or “heartache” or what it means to miss someone to a 4-year-old and you will find yourself saying things like “Dedi will always be in your heart,” and “grand-pap is always with us.” How is that different than living in heaven? I am not sure.
In the process of trying to explain death to Sam, I also had to grow up. This could not be my belly button moment. I couldn’t run away—I had to be there to provide comfort, answers—for him and in a way for myself. I had to make death okay. I have to keep making death okay, because even now that that these losses have become distant, dull aches in our grown-up hearts, they are very much alive, so to speak, for Sam.
Death is an everyday topic in our house. Usually all of Sam’s toy soldiers die during battle. There is a toy soldier field hospital, where captains and corporals “die just a little bit,” and doctors who work heroically to save them. Sam says he will love me even when he is dead. (No word on what happens when I am dead.) We revisit over and over the page in his favorite book about a medieval Hungarian king where the king, according to legend poisoned by figs by his scheming wife, lies on his deathbed, slightly green. “Why did he eat the figs? Why did he get sick? Can we get more information about his death? Is there a video about it on your iPad?”
And of course those he actually knew and who died also pop up during our dinner table conversations. “I miss Dedi,” he sometimes says, or “do you remember grand-pap had an eye patch? Why did he have that?” So we talk about what our dead have done in their lives, in their sickness, in their death. It is not a cheerful conversation to have, but it seems necessary even with its incomplete answers, its confusing story-lines, its uncertain ending.
Occasionally I try to stir Sam in the direction of life when death comes up. What about all of the soldiers who have recovered? Isn’t that just a nasty injury and not a death-sentence? There are medications, you know, that can help. And this king here, he did a lot of great things while he was alive. Built castles! A library! Ushered in the Renaissance to dark, medieval Hungary! Do you remember when Dedi blew kisses on your feet and it tickled you?
Death is a better story, a more compelling mystery. I still want to run from the room when it comes up, but I learned to stay and maybe not appreciate, but respect its unpredictable nature and the fascination it holds for my almost-5-year-old. I know that just like many other phases of childhood, this too will pass.
My husband keeps Sam’s family drawing on his dresser in our bedroom and I look at it every day: the three of us on the ground, standing side-by-side, with the mysterious beings above us, lingering near us just a bit longer.
And I admit that there is comfort in their presence.
Zsofia McMullin lives in Connecticut and blogs at Zsofi Writes.
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