An Essay by Guest Gero-Punk
Tonight after our usual bedtime ritual, my 6 year-old son came out and told me he couldn’t sleep. He was trying all the tricks we have devised over the last 6 almost 7 years: taking deep breaths, relaxing his muscles but nothing was working. I walked him back to bed telling him that eventually sleep would come, though perhaps having his blanket and alligator would help. I picked up his blanket from the floor and pawed through the pile of stuffed animals looking for “Croccy.” Croccy is a sweet, stuffed alligator we adopted from the zoo. (At the age of 6, crocodiles and alligators are pretty much the same.) I was on the floor looking under the bed for Croccy when Nate suddenly rolled over, pulled the covers over his head and said in a very small voice: “I keep thinking about dying-it scares me”.
In the midst of straightening up and announcing Croccy was not there, I froze in place – this would not go away with deep breaths and muscle relaxation. My poor little man. He’s too young to think about this! He should be in dreamland fighting Decepticons and building the world’s largest roller coaster which would take him all the way to Hawaii (his dream vacation destination)!
Realizing I was holding my breath and beginning to feel the effects of it, I slowly let it out as I got to my feet; my mind racing, frantically searching for something to say, the RIGHT thing to say. I have always found it amusing that in the most crucial moments I will notice and focus on some of the most insignificant details. I think that must be a common trick of the mind. Sort of like when the body goes into shock it allows you to function without having to feel the full extent of your physical injuries. I stood there, scrambling for pearls of motherly wisdom like the kind I read in books or see in movies, something that would erase the fear but also not make him feel like I was making his very real fears seem insignificant or a thing to be laughed at. At the same time, however, I was struggling to control spasms of fear that had struck me with his words; the same spasms I experience each and every time I think about death or dying. What on earth do I say to calm my 6 year old little boy’s fear of dying when I have not learned how to calm my 32 year old self’s same fears? Not to mention how horribly disconcerting it was to have my own fears thrown back at me in such a spectacular fashion. I have deliberately kept my fears about dying to myself so as not to warp his impressionable, and may I add, very sharp mind.
So what do I do? I wonder idly where else Croccy could be hiding. Perhaps he knew this conversation was coming and preferred to be elsewhere. Part of me wanted to be there with Croccy. Where was that blasted alligator when I needed him?! The other part of me, the loving and responsible mother who refuses to be a coward, gently tucked the covers under my son’s chin, laid down beside him and wrapped him up in a bear hug. “Sometimes”, I said, “I have thoughts like that too. What I try to do is take a deep breath and remind myself I am here now. I am alive. I am healthy.” He thought for a second then said “No I don’t mean that. I mean when I get old…what will it be like? Will it hurt to die?” Ugh…Another wrench to the heart. “Oh.” I say. “You know, I don’t think it will.” “Really?” he asks. “What do you think it will be like?” “Well,” I say, “I think it will be like falling asleep.” Silence as he ponders this. Then, in a near wail, “But what will happen after?!” What do I say to that?? I’m still working out my own spiritual beliefs while also puzzling out how to instill spirituality in my child without imposing a set of beliefs on him. Good grief, I’d rather be having the sex talk with him than the one I’m currently having. “Some religions,” I tell him, “believe our souls are reborn into new bodies. Others believe we go directly to heaven and are reunited with our family members who have already died.”
Some time passed with me doing my best to explain and contextualize the “Soul” to him in such a way that I did not over-simplify it or overwhelm him. Once he had it clear in his own mind though, magic began to happen. No longer speaking in a tiny, frightened voice his voice became stronger and more confident as he began to put things together for himself, fitting his idea of the soul into the possibilities of reincarnation or heaven. If we had not been lying down I imagine he would have been pacing back and forth as he talked, working things out. It’s always so cool and fascinating to me when I see him learning something new, watching him process in his own way and start to make those connections that lead to a deeper understanding of whatever it is he’s learning about. Being able to watch the creation of knowledge in a person is an amazing experience. Teachers – I get it now.
After several starts, stops, backtracking, and starting again he had the puzzle solved. “OK. So your soul is reborn into a new body…it’s like your soul is taking control of this new body.” “Yeeesss,” I said hesitantly “only you won’t know that’s what you’re doing.” He laughs. “Well, yeah of course.” Pause. “So if we are the same soul in a new body will the six year old self in my next life like basketball too?” I barely suppress a laugh as I say “Well maybe not basketball specifically, but perhaps sports in general.” “Yeah,” he says with a definitive nod, “I will always like sports.” Another pause. “So we’re reborn into a new body but keep our personalities, but we don’t remember any of our past lives…but it’s not the end right? Well I hope those religions are right because I want to keep being reborn. Ohhhhh Mommy, I feel SO much better now. I can totally sleep now.” Well I’m glad one of us will at least. We go through the goodnight ritual again and as I open the door to leave his room he says “I hope you’re my mommy in my next life too.” Determined to make it out of this conversation without crying I begin to babble “Oh Naters I hope I’m your Mommy in your next life too. And I hope you’re my son.” Pause. “Umm, if you are my Mommy how would I NOT be your son?” Ah, humility. Nothing chases away tears like being schooled by your child (at least for me).
On solid-ish footing once again I sat down feeling compelled to write about this experience. One sentence in and he comes out of his room once again. “Remember you said I could sleep in yours & Daddy’s bed until you went to bed?” I remember but that was when he was scared and wanting the safety and comfort of a familiar elsewhere. “Nope,” I say. He says, “Can I still? Oh. And can you find Croccy for me?” I answer, “Yes, and hopefully.” Turning on the light this time I begin yet another search for the wayward Croccy. Finally, I decide to give under the bed one last check and wouldn’t you know it? That bloody reptile was an inch away from where I had been searching for it previously!
I wonder how differently, if at all, the conversation would have gone had I found Croccy earlier? Did he hide on purpose? Are we in a real life Toy Story where our stuffed animals know what is needed better than we do? If Croccy had been found first would I have forced myself to face the topic I try daily to forget? With Croccy I could have soothed my son’s fears while distracting him with his beloved stuffed animal.
I would like to think I would have chosen the non-cowardly way regardless, but apparently Croccy was leaving nothing to chance.