I paused “Bones,” my favorite show to eat enchiladas to, when I heard the whimpered word through the walls. “Mommy.”
It wasn’t the magpie-screech that grinds from his throat when he’s ready to be done with his afternoon nap.
It wasn’t the train-whistle shriek that arrows straight to the base of my skull when Buster’s hand, the same size as his now, snatches his book from his lap.
It was a sob.
I ran down the hall and threw open the door.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
He wore a pair of light blue footie pajamas patterned with chubby airplanes and puffy white clouds. They were just a little too small, the once-crewneck now more of a gentle scoop.
He stood in the middle of the floor, his face red and streaked with tears.
“Mommy, I’m worried,” he choked.
“What are you worried about, baby?” I said the words as I swept him up in my arms, his hot body. It’s too warm for footie pajamas. I have to clean out his dresser again. I lay him down in bed and climbed in beside him, curling around him as he shook.
“I’m worried…” I could see him think his worry the instant before he said it out loud. I could see the sob gather in his crumpling face. “I’m worried that you threw away Peach Pit.”
Peach Pit is a peach pit. Chicken ate a peach this morning at the grocery store and when I went to put the slippery pit in the store’s compost bin he screamed the way a person might if they saw a jumper let go. Heads turned.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“That’s Peach Pit and she’s my very special friend. I don’t want you to throw her away.” He stretched out the last syllable of “away,” so it became the vehicle for his tears.
“But this is a peach pit, baby. It doesn’t go in the trash. It goes in the compost. It goes with other pieces of natural food to a beautiful sunny farm, where it goes into the ground and helps new food grow. Kind of like a food Mommy or a Daddy!”
“I don’t want Peach Pit to go in the ground! She’ll be scared! She has to stay with me FOR EVER!”
I wrapped Peach Pit in a napkin with surgical delicacy. Of course Peach Pit could stay with us forever. We were at the grocery store and the intensity of his fear tightened my chest.
We walked home talking about what to eat for lunch and when we unclipped and went upstairs, he left Peach Pit in the stroller seat, the napkin that I’d wrapped so carefully now soaked in peach juice and crumpled into a ball just the size of Chicken’s fist.
“I didn’t throw away Peach Pit, baby. She’s in the stroller.”
Even as I used a personal pronoun, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. We’ve always tried to be clear about what is imaginary and what is real. When Chicken worries about monsters in his bedroom, we simply say that monsters are not real and there are no monsters in the room. People imagine monsters sometimes to play games, or to write silly stories, but monsters are not real. To tell him that we will protect him from monsters feels like a brutal mercy, because to make that promise makes true two terrible lies: Yes, monsters are real, and yes, you need to be protected from them.
“But I don’t want you to throw her away.”
“I know you don’t, baby. I didn’t. She’s just downstairs in the stroller. We can keep her for as long as you want.”
“Okay, forever. No problem. But if you ever decide that you’re ready to let Peach Pit go to the farm, I just want to remind you that it’s beautiful there and that she won’t get smashed up or anything—“
He pressed his face into my chest and clung to me with each finger.
“Please, Mommy. Don’t throw her away. Don’t make her go away.”
In February as we left Costco a grease-stained napkin flew off the top of his pizza slice and soared away in the bitter winter wind. I held his hand in the car the whole way home as he sobbed these same sobs, racking, profound grief in each heaving wail. “But I love my napkin so much! I don’t want a car to crush it! I don’t want the birds to eat it!” He cried until he found a numb calm, staring out the window at the highway traffic. Then he remembered his napkin, whom he loved so, so much, and his moan, like a tornado warning siren you have to crank up to full volume, began again.
The last time I’d seen that cycle of desolation and devastation was the night my sister’s twin daughters were born, the two of them born in the same quiet second, wrapped in each other’s arms.
I stroked his hair and said, “It seems like you’re really worried about things going away.” He nodded. “Are you worried about other things, like not food things, going away?”
He closed his eyes and gathered his chin. “I don’t want to go away.”
I squeezed him even tighter. “You’re not going away, baby."
"Mommy," he looked up at the ceiling and said, “I don’t want to die.”
When I was four or five I asked my parents what would happen to my sisters and me if they died.
“Well, you’d go to live with Uncle Kevin and Aunt Sue.”
My face crumpled as I wailed, “I don’t want to live with Uncle Kevin and Aunt Sue!”
When I was nine or ten I cultivated a spooky and precocious fascination with books about the Holocaust. I never had nightmares; the stories comforted me. There was something about reading those terrible stories that made me feel like I was building strength against my enemy. Like death was an enemy I could defeat.
When I was 21 I had a full-blown panic attack watching Hook. Think about it – there’s a magic world where you never grow old and die, but we do not live in it.
All this to say, this is all my fault. I poisoned his blood before he was even born.
All this to say, my heart is broken. I have dropped through the same air in the same pit. I haven’t found its bottom.
But he’s so small.
A month ago I came into the bedroom where Chicken has been doing his afternoon quiet time. He sat in the bed in a scatter of Berenstain Bears books. I said, “everything okay in here?” And he nodded, wide-eyed.
I was about to close the door again when a bus drove by the window. Why is the traffic so loud? I went to the window, pulled open the drapes, and gasped. The blinds had been pulled up, the sliding window was open, and the screen lay two stories below on the cement driveway.
“Did you open the window?”
“Chicken, you cannot do that without a grown-up in the room.”
“I wanted to say hi to the birds!”
I sat on the bed and put my hands on his shoulders. “Chicken, did you see how far down the ground is?”
He nodded solemnly. “Yeah. It’s very far down.”
“Chicken, you could fall out of that window and get so badly hurt.”
“Chicken, do you understand? If you fell out of that window you would fall for such a long way. You could break your body on the hard ground. Do you understand? You could die. And if you left the window open and Buster climbed up on the dresser, he could fall out of the window, and fall and long way down, and die.”
“But not if I was wearing shoes and landed on my feet, right?"
“Then you would at least have two broken legs and you could still die. And if you died I would want to die, do you understand? I cannot live without you, do you understand?”
In hindsight, maybe I hit it a little too hard.
All this to say, this is all my fault.
I wanted him to be afraid.
"I don't want to die."
“Oh… Baby… That’s…”
You won’t. You can’t. I can’t even think about it.
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say, “You won’t die,” and make true a terrible lie. This is the only monster that’s real.
Death is a problem for which I have no solution.
He and I are both dropping through the same thin air.
He and I share the same worst nightmare: his death.
Death is a problem for which I have no solution. Years of therapy have taught me how to see the freedom in that: there is no solution to death, so I do not have to be afraid of failing to find it. I get to live my life free from the fear that I could somehow have solved the puzzle. I get to simply live, as long as I can. Therapy works for me.
Death is a problem for which there is no solution, but the fear of death is a problem that can be managed.
Many of the tools I use to minimize my anxiety are things I can pass on to Chicken, even as small as he is, even not even four, just now starting to stretch the neck of his airplane pajamas:
- Make a point to recognize beauty in your life. Remember that death isn’t the only thing that’s all around.
- Have a safe place you can go, a real one, an imaginary one, somewhere you can breathe.
- Breathe slowly.
- Breathe slowly for 5 minutes.
“I don’t want to die.”
"That's… Not something that we get to decide.”
He took a deep breath and said, too loudly, “I’m not going to die FOR EVER.”
I nodded and said, “I know how it feels to be afraid of dying. All people think about that. All people are scared of that. I think about it. Daddy thinks about it. I don’t think Buster thinks about it because he’s too little, but...”
A watery chuckle bubbled up, even as another fat teardrop spilled from Chicken’s eye and fell onto his chest, the bare part that would have been covered by pajamas that fit. “I think he thinks about it.”
“You think so? Maybe he does! If he doesn’t now, he will someday. Everybody thinks about it, but nobody really gets to decide it, baby. It’s like… the weather. We don’t get to pick what weather it’s going to be, not today, not tomorrow, not ever, right?”
“And we don’t get to pick about dying, either. But the most important thing is to remember that right now, everything is okay. Right now, this minute, everyone is okay, right?”
“Right now there are beautiful things all around us, right?”
“Right! Like that picture!” He gestures with the wide-open, sweeping palms of a car model. We both looked at the large square canvas that hangs on the wall opposite my bed. It’s a photograph of a plant at sunset with a twiggy, banded stalk, chestnut seedpods, and white feathery tentacles as coiled and curling as kelp. I took the picture myself, on a walk with the boys, a block away from our old house.
“Yes, exactly! I hung that picture there because every time I look at it, I think about how strange and beautiful the world is, how every time we go for a walk on any old day we will see something amazing and beautiful. Let’s take some deep breaths, and after every deep breath, let’s talk about something beautiful.”
Me: Chicken’s dimples when he smiles.
Me: Autumn leaves that skip across the street.
Him: Reading books on the couch under a blanket.
Me: When Daddy comes home every day.
Him: Daddy’s work clothes.
Me: Buster’s big smile and his laugh whenever he’s playing with Chicken.
Him: And when we give each other tight squeezes.
As we took more breaths, his awful stillness began to crack. He began to wiggle again, the uninhibited fluttering limbs of a child seeking comfort. Soon he lay with his head on my leg, his legs splayed and propped up on throw pillows in an ocean of duvet.
There should just be a law, right? There should just be a law that if a person is still wearing airplane footie pajamas, that person should only be afraid of Snow White’s wicked stepmother and toilets flushing. That person should only be afraid of produced horrors, the specter that can be switched off, explained with loving logic. If you’re still wearing airplane footie pajamas, you can’t be afraid of something real.
He saw or felt me crying, and said, in his regular, chirping voice, “Mommy? Can I give you a hug?” I nodded. He climbed back into my lap, wrapped his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist, and held on. Beautiful.