Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Natalie on Life and Death

I suppose the topic would have to come up sooner than later, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be until Elsa kicked the bucket (or the doggie bowl, whatever it is animals do when they die). And then I’d have to explain to a young Natalie (and Matthew) where she went and that she won’t be coming back.

To me, the topic is fascinating, and I love to discuss it. Where you go when you die; what happens to your soul; What is the meaning of life? Why do you die in the first place? It reminds me of all of those beer-soaked nights spent with friends trying to solve the world's mysteries while blowing our minds with concepts difficult to comprehend. "But wait, what if the Solar System is just an atom in the fingernail of a giant being...." Whoa!

It seems that I won't have to wait until the kids are in college to relive such discussions, as Disney has beaten me to it.

At first, based on the influence of “The Little Mermaid,” Gnat insisted that she had lost her voice to Ursula, the Sea Witch, and she’s spend parts of the day silently mouthing words and pointing to her throat—which was nice because it was quiet around here for a change—and the rest of the time she’d can’t wait to get into the bath tub at night so she could have her tail back. And that was nice too because she'd more readily want to take a bath. (Sometimes her tail would come out during the day: She’d stand there with her feet pinned tightly together and complain that she couldn’t walk because of her tail and mermaids can’t use their tails on land).

Now—thank you very much Walt Disney, you misogynistic matricidal mother hater—now, Natalie has been watching such movies like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” and she has apparently paid particular attention to the scenes where Aurora and Snow White go to sleep (a.k.a. slip into an apple-, or spinning wheel-induced coma and die only to be awakened by some magical means). A few days ago, Natalie rolled onto the floor, closed her eyes and folded her hands over her chest, whispering to me that she can’t wake up until a prince kissed her. This prince instead tickles maidens in distress in lieu of kisses.

If her death pose wasn’t bad enough, yesterday afternoon, while I was trying to scrape together a project during a particularly odd quiet time, Natalie came into my office with a somewhat worried look on her face.

She’s not one to beat around the bush, so she got right to it, saying: “Daddy, I don’t want to die.”
My stomach churned at the string of words coming from my daughter.

So, what is a father to say when his three year old is contemplating the steps into the great beyond? I’m sure it is the first of many tests to come for me, when perplexing philosophical reflections come to pass and challenge my ability to explain them in a way that won’t keep her up at night thinking that if she closed her eyes to sleep, she’d never wake up again. It's bad enough I do that myself, I don't need her insomnia on my conscience.

First off, I strongly believe in two things when it comes to talking with my kids: 1) I speak to them as I would any other person, which means no baby talk and no asinine sentence structure that makes me look like a second-grade malcontent. There’s nothing worse than hearing a grown person say things like, “Baby want bottle?” or “Where ball?” It hurts me grammatically to hear it, and I think it slows down their development of conversational language. How do I know this? I don’t. I just hate baby talk. And 2) I’m not going to tell them tall tales about the facts of life because I can’t handle the topic myself or I can’t find a good way to explain something complicated. I’m not going to tell her the stork brought Matthew, but I’m also not going to tell her that he was the result of passionate make-up sex either (which, of course, isn’t true, but more interesting than the truth, as it turns out). Something innocent and in-between will help her understand the situation. “Babies come from Mommy’s tummy…not all of them, mind you, just two… you and your brother.”

It’s usually enough to send her on her way.

Lately, she’s been nothing but questions, endless questions about everything. I was putting a new car seat for her into Kara’s car, and I couldn’t twitch my thumb muscle without her asking me why I did that. I was reaching the last scrap of patience under the weight of her endless barrage of queries, as if each and every action needed to be deftly explained to her. “I’m moving my leg because it is cramping up.” “A cramp is when the muscle tightens painfully after being constricted for a period of time.” “Constricted means tightened, like when you flex your arm.” “Yes, that’s your left arm.” “No, this is my right arm. They’re opposite when we face each other.” It went on like that for nearly an hour.

So, I was rather shocked to here her voice her concerns about death. I told her, “You’re not going to die, Natalie, at least not for a long, long time. You’ll be much, much older than me even.”

"When are you going to die?"

"Nobody knows. It's one of the mysteries of life."

“If I hurt my finger, will I die?” she asked, pointing first to her thumb and then to her index finger. After that, I figured out that “Sleeping Beauty” was to blame for the line of inquiries.

“No, there’s nothing you can do to your finger that will make you die,” I explained. “It’ll hurt a lot but you can’t die from it.”

“What if I hurt my toe? Will I die then?” I can tell it just happened to be the next body part she looked at.

“Don’t worry, you can’t die from hurting your toe.” I didn’t explain to her that Jack Daniel’s died from an infected toe after kicking his safe because he couldn’t get it open one morning. But that was almost 100 years ago and I’m sure medicine has improved since then… so it became a moo point (you know, a cow’s opinion, it doesn’t matter).

“I hope you don’t die.” Her face wrinkled a little. “I’d miss you. And I’d miss Mommy and Matthew and Elsa if they died too.”

“Well, nobody’s going to be dying around here any time soon.”

By this time, I heard Matthew making his way toward the stairs, and lately he has been attempting to descend them by himself—and granted he does really well—but he gives away his intentions by saying down the hallway, “boom, boom, boom,” which is the sound we taught him to go along with going down the stairs on his bum. So, every time he goes down the stairs, each riser gets a “boom” attached to it as his bum plops down. Although, sometimes he flops over and body surfs down. It's quicker and elicits many more giggles than the safe way.

Maffy was standing at the top of the stairs when Natalie and I came up behind him, and Natalie was obviously still thinking about what we had just talked about. “We don’t want Matthew to fall down the stairs, do we?” she asked.

“No, he could get hurt.”

“Could he die?”

“Well, maybe… but let’s not find out.”

So Natalie and I helped the little grub safely down the stairs.

There was more to it, between her and I, as we talked for another 10 minutes or so about death. I didn’t explain too much as I didn’t want to cloud her mind with too many new thoughts. But one thing was made quite clear as she summed up our little chat: “Daddy, when you die, you don’t ever come back. And I don’t want to die because I like it here.”

Yeah, I like it here too.

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