The first time the topic of death came up with my preschooler was when I was reading him a children’s book by Aldous Huxley. I know. You probably didn’t think Aldous Huxley had a children’s book in him, and if I had my druthers, I would have preferred that he hadn’t. The Crows of Pearblossom had been given to us as a gift, and it seemed innocent enough, at first blush. Two married crows – the husband is an accountant and the wife a homemaker (natch) – are living a simple life and trying to start a family in spite of a nasty snake that keeps eating the wife’s eggs for his breakfast. And though the misogynistic tones of the book bothered me (example: upon coming home to find his wife crying, the husband crow asks, “Amelia! Have you been overeating again?”) what really threw me for a loop was when the wife asks her husband to go find the snake and kill him.
Since I am usually doing this parenting business on the fly, I hadn’t read the book beforehand and thus had no filter when I got to the part about killing the snake. (I really should have known better. A lot of the books we’ve been reading for my son’s age group have delightful “surprise” endings where they implore the reader to “start all over again at the beginning” which makes me suspect that whoever wrote the damn book is a sadist.) And it wasn’t so much that I was worried about how my son would process these concepts of killing and death, so much as I was really tired and was looking forward to the glass-of-rosé part of my evening. I was not in the mood for fielding difficult questions before bedtime. Of course the preschooler sniffed out my anxiety and for the rest of the night wanted to talk about killing the snake and what happened to those eggs he ate, anyway?
“The mommy crow wanted the daddy to KILL that snake?” my son asked, on our way to brush teeth.
“Yes,” I explained. “She didn’t like that he kept on eating her eggs.”
“She wanted her eggs?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
He lifted the lid of the toilet to pee. “She wanted her eggs because she was hungry?”
I waited for him to finish his nightly dousing of my toilet seat before answering this question. It kills me to watch him do this. He seems to have decent aim all day long but somehow each night he manages to make a nice little puddle for me to Clorox the shit out of later.
“No, she doesn’t eat her own eggs,” I said, as we walked to his bedroom. Those eggs would have been her babies.” I lifted him up to his loft bed.
“Let’s talk about that tomorrow.” Explaining eggs turning into baby crows was just too much on top of everything else. Besides, then he would realize that when Mommy and Daddy eat breakfast, they are being just as evil as that snake, eating would-be baby crows and the like.
Thankfully he dropped the egg questions. We sang songs and talked about his day and I patted his back like I used to do when he was a baby. I said goodnight, then closed the door the specific amount he requires and was walking away when he called after me: “But why she wanted the snake DIED?”
So that was when this whole thing about death started. He harped on it for the next few nights, and then it only came up again once more, after a playdate with the older boy across the hall. They’d been playing with toy guns and he came home saying things like, “Boom! You’re dead!” and all I could think was, great, now all my Sensitive Mom friends are going to hate me because now I have THAT boy. The one who goes around making shooting noises and gleefully exclaims that he has just killed you, and you and you. The kid no one wants her kid to play with for fear that he will acquire violent tendencies. But either he forgot about the guns or it just wasn’t interesting enough, because it never came up again. Thank God.
Then recently, we were having a really beautiful moment, on a tree swing on a leafy hilltop in Tennessee – our last vacation of the summer. It was so pleasant, it was just the two of us, and I was pushing him higher and higher and we were talking about how pretty the Smokies looked off in the distance, when he asked me, “Mommy, are you gonna die?”
I tried to push away the fear that something Sixth Sense-ish was going on, and that my son had some eerie connection to the afterlife or could see into the near future and instead took the question for what it was – an inevitable curiosity that seems to happen to all kids around the age of four. I’d seen some things on my Facebook mom groups about parents wondering what to tell their kids when they ask about death and dying, so I knew I wasn’t the mom of the one Weirdo Kid.
I told him that yes, one day I am going to die, but that that won’t be till a very long time from now. And that every living thing eventually dies, from the green grass to the leaves on the trees around us. And fuck, this was getting heavy.
“Will Daddy die?”
“Yes, Daddy will die, too. Eventually everyone dies. But that will be very long from now. Probably when we are a hundred years old.”
He squinted at me, trying to work something out. “How old are you?” he asked.
“And when will you be a hundred?”
“In like, a really, really long time.”
“Like how many minutes?” he asked.
“Too many to count,” I assured him.
We continued swinging and I could tell he was processing this, and that he wasn’t comforted by this news. I prayed that I wasn’t screwing him up for life right here, and giving him some terrible answers. I was pretty sure I’d made a wrong turn somewhere.
“Mommy?” he asked, his eyes wide. “When you and Daddy die, will I be all alone?” I could see that he was on the verge of panic.
I stopped the swing and hugged him, and tried to come up with my best answer. “No, you will have your brother, and your own family and children to keep you company. You will NEVER be alone. OK?”
He nodded, somewhat satisfied it seemed, with my response. I grabbed both ropes of the swing and took as many steps backward as I could before the ropes could give no more, then released him.
As he pumped his legs back and forth, I tried to think of some other things to say, some parental wisdom that he would internalize and carry with him down the line. Maybe even a shred of memory that he might pick up years and years later, when I was actually a hundred years old, and he would look back at this moment and remember this conversation with me. I pictured him eulogizing me at my funeral, about how I was always patient, and loving, and that he was grateful for my being frank and honest about the tougher questions in life even if they were permanently scarring.
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ALEXIS BARAD-CUTLER is a writer, editor, and published author. She writes about “the kind of stuff no one talks about in Mom Group” on her blog. Her writing is also regularly featured on WellRoundedNY, MommyNearest.com and RZBeyondMom.com. You can follow this Brooklyn mama on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Read all of Alexis’ posts.