It’s a weekday evening.
My wife, Laurie, is out attending one of her graduate courses in early childhood development. I’m home tending to our sons, Peter and Brian, 3 and 5 years old, respectively.
The Inclusion Of Death In Children’s Books
I’ve just finished reading to them The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant, a favorite book of theirs I’ve read dozens of times. Sadly, the story unfolds with Babar’s mother being killed by a hunter and Babar being forced to flee the jungle. (Do people actually write these kinds of books thinking that they are more easily advancing a young child’s entry into the world? Alas.)
“Okay guys, bedtime,” I say as I snap the book shut.
Peter and Brian both hop off the bed and head to the bathroom, located just across the hallway, to wash their faces and brush their teeth while I tidy up their room and take down their sheets, hoping against hope they’ll both go down easily and sleep through the night.
While I’m engaged in these seemingly mundane parental duties, I hear a whimper, then a soft cry….
“I don’t want to die,” sobs 3-year-old Peter, obviously thinking back on the fate of Babar’s mother.
Peter was always a sensitive child, and now adult. This was the same year he would not allow us to throw away a Halloween pumpkin that he had named Pumpkie, until it had putrefied and reeked on our front porch. To satisfy Peter’s sensibilities we ended up having to give Pumpkie a proper memorial service, attended by the entire family, all spouting kind, reverential words over a rotting, misshapen, way over-ripe gourd.
But the exchange between the two brothers had just begun.
The Natural Order Of Death
“Don’t worry, Pete,” said 5-year-old Brian, taking on the role of consoling big brother. “Dad’s going to die first ‘cause he’s the oldest.”
If Peter was the sensitive one, Brian was always the very literal, rational one. I recall having said to him once, “Come on, Bri, let’s go pick up the babysitter.” His response: “Why? She fall down?” Who could dispute his reasoning?
Back in the bathroom, Brian continued with his logical formulation….
“….After dad dies, Pete, then mom’s going to die.”
I had a feeling I knew where this was going, and it wasn’t going to end well for Peter.
“Then you and me, Pete,” Brian went on without skipping a beat, “we’re going to live for a long, long time.” I could hear Peter sniffling in the background.
“Then I’m going to die ‘cause I’m older than you, Pete…” At this point I’m leaning against a wall holding back my breath, as well as a tear…. Then you’re going to die, Pete, ‘cause you’re the youngest.”
“But I don’t want to die,” Peter sobbed inconsolably.
It was no use. I had to take in air and give up a tear.
On a more practical level, the thought also ran through my mind, “Well, there goes any chance of Peter sleeping through the night.”
If Only Logic Prevailed
If only life were so logical, rational and predictable. If only we knew the trajectory our lives would take and could plan ahead to minimize the agonies and maximize the ecstasies. If only….
After a bit of tender parenting and consoling, Peter finally calmed down enough to eventually close his eyes and fall asleep. Brian, as usual, fussed for a while but finally laid his head on his pillow and out he went.
Later, when Laurie got hope and wanted to know how the evening had gone, I immediately relayed to her the night’s headline story.
If it was anyone who didn’t sleep through that night, it was me. The tape of the boys’ exchange kept playing in my head.
More than 30 years later, it’s still ricocheting somewhere in my cranium. And at age 74, I’m still hoping Brian’s logic prevails. But not for many more years!