The other night, though, after singing our songs and saying our goodnights, what I heard from the living room was sobbing. After a groan of frustration because nighttime is when I work, I pretty much sprinted in. Sobbing like that is not an everyday occurrence. When I finally can get a word in I ask what's wrong.
"I don't want to die!" she wails. "Mama, I don't want to die!"
Now I'm laying there with the whole of my body curved around hers, feeling her breathe and shake and sob. Feeling the warmth of a body that I literally created from near nothing and can no more imagine dying than I could seriously contemplate waking up to find that my arm or leg had simply disappeared. But the truth is that, yes, she and I and everyone will die one day.
So what do I say? I obviously cannot tell her that she won't ever die because that's a lie and a stupid one at that. I can't even tell her that she won't die until she's very, very old because I just plain don't know if that's true.
Childhood cancer is a reality too many families face. A car accident or some trick of biology or even a fall at the playground could take her from me. The world can be a very dangerous place and once upon a time when it wasn't unusual to birth eleven children and only see two reach adulthood people knew that. Accepted it as a fact of life. Now fewer things kill us early but we hear about more: ebola, stranger danger, car crashes, plane crashes, random aneurisms, and the newscaster's list of surprising things in your medicine cabinet that can kill... hundreds of terrors delivered to television and tablet screens.
I mean, what do you even say to a five-year-old who's having an existential crisis?
Heaven is a comfort to the old and the world weary but not so much for the child who has seen hardly any of all the things to be seen. The thought of spending eternity with God means nothing to this small person who in her ideal world would spend eternity with me. The idea that most people don't die until they're quite old is confusing enough considering P. thinks her grandparents in their mid-50s are ancient.
What can I say?
My children are going to die. Someday, hopefully long after I have died peacefully in my sleep and after being able to say proper goodbyes. When I am so old that everyone feels like it's the right time. Because I am going to die just like our betta fish died and our cat Mannix died and everything in the whole world that's alive is going to die. That means P. and me and everyone. No exceptions.
In the end, I didn't say anything at all because everything I tried to say was as far from comforting as you can get. It's a tough world and the drawback of consciousness is that you can't escape the fact that someday that consciousness will wiped from the earth and then after enough time has passed all memory of that consciousness will be gone, too.
"Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That's when I will be truly dead - when I exist in no one's memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies,too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?” ― Irvin D. Yalom, Love's Executioner and Other Tales of PsychotherapyFrankly it's not an idea that haunts me, but I know it weighs heavily on my husband. Maybe P. is simply her father's daughter when it comes to questions of mortality. Maybe I should let him handle things if it turns out my five-year-old's fear of death is more than a passing notion. I honestly do not know.
Maybe because I don't know exactly when I started to think about my own death but it wasn't until into my early 20s that I really internalized the fact that I was going to die. Even then, it didn't exactly bother me. Talking to kids about the death of a pet isn't at all the same as talking to a kid about dying.
I am out of my element.