I don't know exactly what a prayer is./ I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/… Tell me, what else should I have done?/ Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?–mary oliver

Death and Your Four Year Old

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This is not a picture I took (obviously) but I love it because this little girl, who we’ll call…umm…C! was running towards me so we could play the classic childhood game Knock The Babysitter Down.
The other night, I had quite the conversation with this little girl and her brother. I’d like to write a proper essay about it but in the meantime:
It’s eight thirty and I’ve turned out the lights for the little kids, sent the nine-year-old to his room with the book of Greek myths, and gone to help the preteen with homework. It’s always strange, with somebody else’s kids: I’ve been babysitting since I was younger than their eldest daughter, and mostly I am used to this funny relationship, this being so close and yet so far apart. But tonight I go back in to check on the younger ones and see C., who is four and very small in stature, sitting up, face against the window.
“What are you doing?” I ask her. “Are you waiting for Mommy and Daddy?”
She nods, and from the top bunk I hear J., who is six, ask, “Vanessa? What would happen if our mommy and daddy got shot?”
I take a breath, sit down on C’s bed. “What would happen, J” I am being Socratic, here.
C. says solemley “we would have to walk to the orphanage and get adopted.”
I manage to stifle a laugh just in time. “Oh, C” I say, and pull her away from the window to draw her into my arms. She leans her head against my shoulder and I rock her gently, back and forth, smoothing her hair and kissing the top of her head, soft and gentle in the dark.
I remember that the kids have been watching Annie a lot lately. I ask them if they know how many people care about them. “There are lots of people who would take care of you if Mommy and Daddy died,” I say. “Aunt J, Aunt A, Grandma and Grandpa, all your other aunts and uncles…”
“What if there is a car accident?” C. asks.
I tell her that her parents are careful drivers, but she remembers—of course she does—a car accident they were in. “What about {name of car redacted},” she mummers into my chest.
I ask her if anyone got hurt when te car crashed, and we remember together how W. almost had to go to the hospital. I ask what they do at the hospital, and all three of us agree that hospitals are where they make people better. If there is a car accident, I suppose I am telling them, Mommy and Daddy will go to the hospital and get better.
J. reminds me that they could still get shot.
I say, yes, you’re right, J. They could get shot. But we hope they will not die for a long, long time. Most people don’t die, I tell them, until their kids are very old. Grown-ups.
“Do you know how to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house?” he asks, and I say that they do. “Good,” he says. “You can drive us.”
I sit in C’s bed, stroke her hair, and think of the versions of this conversation I’ve had. The nearly five-year-old who asked me, with great intensity, why medicine hadn’t been able to fix Mommy’s friend, and what this weird sickness, this cancer was. “Did they try all the medicine in the world,” she wanted to know, and I pictured the researchers in the rain forest looking for the next great thing and told her that yes, the doctors tried all the medicine they could think of. And there was the boy, eight, who wanted to know if his mother was going to get killed, and then what would happen? Who would take care of him?
I wonder if I am doing them a disservice, telling them the truth. I believe that kids deserve the truth, that their parents will die, and I believe, too, that what they mostly want to know is that they will cared for and that somebody will still be there to feed the and wash them and play with them.



Written by vanessa steck

February 17, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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