Last week, getting ready to cross our slushy street in the dark with both kids in the stroller and a load of groceries, I saw a fox bounding boldly down the middle of the street. "Look, a fox!" I yelled to DS, eager for him to see, "A fox running right down our street! What do you think of that?"
Then this weekend, we all hiked up and over the next ridge, to the playground in the clouds, and as birthday-surprise visiting uncle pushed the stroller on ahead, I saw a beautiful dead fox lying in the leaves. I pointed it out to DH, but I made no move to call DS back to see.
We've talked about death, here and there. In bits and pieces. I try to make no special effort TO talk about my dad or NOT to talk about him. I try to answer DS's questions simply and truthfully, to convey (with that magical mix of word and tone and posture) that death is - just like life - something that simply IS, that no one can explain why (beyond that once there is life, there must be death, too), even though nearly everyone will try.
But I was not eager to make the fox a teaching point just then.
I hoped it wasn't our fox, our gorgeous jaunty sleety-evening fox. I hoped it wasn't a mother fox, with babies now starving to death in their cold den. I was glad not to know.
Even though I try to take it as it comes, to talk about death with my child when he needs to, one simple thought at a time, even though my "beliefs" about life and death have come to where they are - a mash-up of letting the mystery be with awe and gratitude and sadness, of sciencey agnosticism and a little superstition and the occasional warm fuzzy metaphor involving reincarnation or spirits or dreams or the parking spaces my mom is sure my dad holds open for her... even though I kind of sort of maybe feel like I know what I believe, it's not the sort of belief that can be well conveyed in words, especially to a three-year-old, and I kind of think it's taken the whole of my life so far and every little (and big) thing that's happened in it to shape.
Which includes everything my own parents said to me, of course. The assurances of my mother that nothing was going to happen to her or dad for a long long time (is twenty years a long long time? I think we both had longer in mind). The calm reasoning of my father that, yes, our sun will eventually burn out and the earth become a frozen rockball, maybe sucked into a black hole, but we will all be long dead by then, so long dead that even our bones will surely have broken down into their component molecules and been used to build many something-elses, anyway. So, don't worry about it. And isn't that amazing? That our bodily selves are each just the nth (and ever-changing) organization of a tiny subset of atoms of the Universe? Isn't that AMAZING?
And yet, happy as I am with my current feelings about life and death, I don't think I'll be sharing that bit of cosmic-time perspective with DS. At least not for a while. I recall being deeply upset to think of our poor frozen not-even-bones (and those of all our ancestors and descendants) sliding inexorably into a black hole along with our deader-than-dead sun.
Even now, it's much more comfortable to contemplate death in the tiny context of the circle of life as we know it now, in this split-second of the history of the Universe, to admire a gorgeous dead fox, or a particularly stunning fungus happy on a very dead stump. To think about it all in an artistic, poetic sort of way and push aside the fear that slipped so easily from the childhood anxiety of losing my parents into the deeper terror of through some bad luck leaving my sweet marvelous happy young children motherless and crushed, or losing DH and being left as the very only brittle twig standing between them and EVERYTHING...
Which is all, of course, what I do not want DS to ask about. Because I am not sure the right words will come. I don't want to promise emptily, Don't worry, honey, we will never die. I don't want to tell him truthfully, We could die any time; we will definitely all die eventually; I'm terrified death will rip me from you before you don't need me anymore. Maybe grace will give me in the moment some three-year-old appropriate way to say that I don't know, that no one can ever know, but that we are blessed to be here, to have each other, that we have been blessed and will always be, simply by what is. And that every loss he suffers will become a part of him, another blessed part of him that, like every other part of him, he will spend a lifetime getting to know the ins and outs of, wondering at it, learning from it, hugging it and kicking it... until he himself dies and then... who can know? Either another grand adventure or a well-deserved, most perfect rest, I guess.
P.S. As I was adding a link to this post, DS saw the computer and instantly, as always, wanted to send an email. "First you have to disappear that picture," he said. "Oh, you don't like it?" I asked. "No, I don't like it," he said. "Why not?" I asked, and he answered quickly, "Because the fox is doing things he shouldn't do." "Oh, like what?" I asked, and he fidgeted all over the couch, searching for an answer, "...Like things with balloons."
Most intriguing are these small ones, no?