Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Death, the universe and everything

Last night it began with Franco. Why is that man like that, Mama? Franco is a coworker. He’s a gentle-spirited man who nonetheless makes my girls nervous because he’s different. He’s mentally retarded. He looks a little different and moves a little slower and he talks to himself and he stares in uncomfortably long segments but if they listened closely and followed his gaze they’d realize it’s not you, my pretties, that capture his interest. He’s talking about fuel injection and rubber molding and you think he’s watching you climb in the car night after night but he doesn’t want to know about you, he wants to know about your engine. The other civil servants who rely on public transportation walk right past our daycare pickup lane on the way to the bus stop a few yards down the path. Franco lingers, a peeping Tom, checking out not the little kiddies but the makes of their mommies’ motors.

She asked why is he staring at me? and why is he like that? and why isn’t he moving? and I say repeatedly, quietly but urgently, “Love, I will answer that question. I will answer your questions, but not until our car doors are closed and we’re driving." And she asks but why can’t we talk about that man right now? and I urge patience. “Wait, my love, wait. It will be the first thing we talk about when we’re driving.”

are smart
and healthy and
sturdy and strong. He’s…

His head’s not right, I try to explain. I tread carefully, thinking of Saturday night’s pitfall and her tentatives, her unsures, her anxieties, her first forays into The World Isn’t Actually Safe and Perfect.


Saturday night as the girls gaped out the windows of their first taxi ride, heading downtown toward Gracie Mansion and our Brooklyn Bridge walk, we passed NYU’s hospital and I had an old memory startle me with its resurrection. I asked the lovely husband, “was that where your Uncle David was hospitalized and they wouldn’t let me on the floor?”

“Yes,” he affirmed as the inquisitive girl boomeranged our conversation. Who is this Uncle of whom you speak? she inquired, except she didn’t. She demanded instead, Who’s an Uncle David? And Mama, what does that mean you can’t get let on a floor? She doesn’t know from an Uncle David. She has one uncle living in the regular orbits of her conversational world and that’s my brother, her Uncle Matt. Uncle David was the lovely husband’s uncle, her grandma’s brother, a man who died of cancer nearly a decade ago.

The family was gathering by his bedside. I wasn’t family yet, just the girlfriend, but I lived in Manhattan then. I showed up, flowers in hand. I had flowers in hand and I wasn’t family, just the girlfriend: a double no-no. I wasn’t allowed on the floor.

All of which, I tried to explain to the girl, but she wouldn’t be dislodged from her fixation: Who’s an Uncle David? And where did he go?

So now, regrettably, I’ve introduced into her narrative another character who had such bad boo-boos in his body that the doctors couldn’t fix him. She is haunted by death ever since our next-door neighbor died last month. Why did he die and where did he go and who will push my friends [the neighbor kids] on the swingset? Their daddy always pushes them on the swingset. So we’ve talked about Alan, our swiftly-departed neighbor. We’ve talked and talked and talked again and the thing she needs to hear every time is that it’s so sad, it’s always so sad when somebody dies but the biggest reason of why it’s so, so sad that her neighbor friends’ daddy died is that these horrible boo-boos aren’t supposed to happen to daddies with young kids. They’re supposed to happen only to old, old ancient old grandmas and grandpas who have lived whole lives already. And that because of that, head boo-boos like that probably won’t happen to anybody else she knows.

Except: there was Alan, and before him there was an Uncle David, and what else aren’t we telling her?

you I’ll
be here forever
might be lying, but:

(I promise. I promise and I promise and I squeeze the scares away with all the love I can pour out of me and onto you.)
(But the scares come back.)


And last night was the night she asked for an explanation of Franco. And stupidly, clumsily, because I can’t walk a straight sidewalk without tripping and I’ve not yet learned to shape my words without falling in the chasms of my daughter’s nightmares, here I’ve told her that his head isn’t right, that he has boo-boos. But he’s not dead, she states by way of wondering why. And here I can bring a measured optimism in the form of the barely reassuring news that not all head boo-boos make someone die. But if he doesn’t have a get-dead boo-boo, what happened? I tell her I don’t know, I’m not a doctor and I’m not his doctor and I don’t know, but it was probably something that didn’t grow right when he was still inside his mommy. I tell her he’s a nice man and a good man and that she can’t see his boo-boos, he’ll never hurt her, she has nothing to be scared of, and that her healthy, strong body with the so-smart brain is an amazing and lucky thing.


Abruptly she changes our conversation. Tell me a story, Mama. That means she’s done questioning, for now. She wants to retreat into something familiar so she can continue her processing in the background. She’ll have more questions later, of this I have no doubt, but here she is signaling that This Conversation Is Over.

And so I oblige. “What story would you like, love?” Tell me the God story, she asks, which is what she calls the story of creation from Genesis. And so we begin In the Beginning (which, were I feeling sanguine instead of melancholic, I would point out Is a Very Good Place to Start). But this time she peppers me with interruptions. When did God make the other planets? And the stars? I go with “at the same time as the other sky things – when everything for the top was separated from everything for the bottom. At the same time as the clouds.” When did God make the angels? And when did God make the dinosaurs? And why don’t angels help people anymore? And I go with “I think they do still help, but we don’t always get to see it happen.” Well, if God made the dinosaurs and everything God makes is special, where did the dinosaurs go?

And may I just take a break to point out to you all the obvious: this parenting stuff is hard. And sometimes it’s physically exhausting, with the lifting and the carrying and the needing, but way more often it’s mentally exhausting. Because now I have to try to explain extinction, and I’m going to try to do so without doing any more talking about death.

She asks
about the dinosaurs.
Are they in the

“No, sweet girl, God didn’t put them in the garbage. They’re just gone. They just stopped being. They had no more dinosaur babies and they were no more. That was all a very long time ago.”

your questions
about the galaxy
won't erase the scary

Okay, Mama, tell me about when God made the man from the dirt. Which translates to: I satisfied her for as long as last night. We could move on. But this girl, she stores things. She’ll store and ruminate and fold over. She’ll worry and meditate and puzzle and there will be a moment, maybe tonight when I snuggle her before bed or maybe this weekend when we bake the pies I’ve promised her we’ll bake with our undiminished abundance of apples. There will be a moment when on the surface all seems well and I’ll be feeling the confidence of my mamahood through her contentment and she’ll speak casual words that will send tremors to my core. And somehow, cautiously, together we’ll have to navigate another verbal stepping stone on this unsteady path where I teach her to walk confidently across this uncertain existence, and not be afraid.

Note: the cinquains interspersed through this day’s glimpse of My Brain is Unsettled and Non-Linear are brought to you by a monthly blogging poetry challenge. I’ve participated before here and here and I don’t generally participate in memes but I like this one for the way it challenges my writing conventions. I think that with this task Stephanie was suggesting that five lines of text are sufficient. However, anyone who’s ever stopped by my virtual nest before knows that brevity is just not my style.
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LazyBones said...

I thought by the time I had kids I would have solved all these existential questions of the universe. And I waited until 32, but still, whoops. We do the best we can. And it's never easy.

MommyWizdom said...

Phew, I'm exhausted from just reading that!

Come rest your brain a bit and play Boggle with me. I promise, it's fun!

What happened to the good old days when you could just say, "go ask your Dad?"

Now Dad just send them right back to me! - Lol.