By Michele Winkler
Issue 106 May/June 2001
“What happened to Bambi’s mother?” three-year-old Mira asks my husband. “Why can’t she be with him anymore?” I have always explained that Bambi’s mother was taking a nap, but Mira’s dad tells her the truth.
“Mom,” she wails, running over to me. I glare at my husband and gather her in my arms. “Mom, please don’t die. I’ll miss you forever.”
I shift uncomfortably. “Look,” I say, “everybody starts out as a baby, and then they grow up. After a long time, people grow to be very old, and then–well, it is just their time to die. Do you understand?”
She shakes her head. “I want you to stay with me forever. Promise not to die. Please!” I hold her tightly but find I can say nothing.
This fearful fascination with death continues. Where does it come from, I wonder. Bambi? A collective unconscious of children’s terrors? Other mothers tell me their three year olds also are obsessed with death. Dead bugs. A dead bird on the porch. A dead mouse that the cat dragged in. An ant that they stepped on. Dead butterflies on the trail. Mira puts one in a box and carries it with her for weeks, watching over it “until it gets better.”
“When will it fly again, Mom?” she asks. I explain that it is dead and that it will not fly again. She pokes at it. “Look, one of its wings has an owie.” I explain that the butterfly no longer needs its wings, no longer feels pain. Mira nods thoughtfully, and carefully replaces it in the box. “It’s sick,” she announces. “It needs soup and cake. I will carry it until it feels better.”
One morning she puts all of her toy animals into a corral. I offer a mirror for a makeshift pond, so that the baby ducks can swim and the others can drink. Mira shakes her head, chubby cheeks heavy in concentration.
“No,” she explains patiently. “They don’t want to. They’re dead.” “Dead?” I echo stupidly, feeling my heart plummet; I had been hoping she was over this.
“They’re dead,” she repeats, “and they have to wait here until they’re better. Then their mommies will come.” I say nothing, trying to sit quietly and simply be with her as she struggles, with a three-year-old’s mind, to come to terms with death.
Sometimes it is the mommy horse who is dead, and all the babies crowd around her. Sometimes the dead, like Lazarus, return to life, sometimes not. This play continues for weeks, months. Dead whales float in the tub; dead mares lie next to the barn, surrounded by weeping offspring. I feel myself stretched, fraying, willing her to move away from this painful subject.
I think of my father, feeble and skeletal in his hospital bed. I think of my mother, some 30 years ago, peering at her face in the bathroom mirror and telling me that she was not going to die. “Everyone else can,” she said fiercely, “but not me. I have made up my mind.”
For months Mira struggles to make sense of death, and I struggle to allow her the space to do so. I ask if she understands what dead means, and she shakes her head. I ask her what forever means, and she doesn’t know; yet she begs me to stay with her forever and not to die. At times I’m ready to say anything, just to get her to stop asking. Except that if something were to happen to me, a freak accident or illness, I could not bear to add betrayal to her grief. So I tell the truth: that I expect to live until I am very old, that I would never leave her by choice, that I am young and healthy. Still Mira says, many times each day, “Please don’t die, Mom. I don’t want you to die. I would miss you too much. I would miss you forever.”
One day she announces, brightly, “I know what to do. I’ll die with you when you die. Then you won’t have to leave me.” I hug her tightly, say that I don’t expect to die for a long time, and go into the bedroom where she won’t hear me crying.
That same summer a friend, a young man, dies unexpectedly. My young nephew’s birth mother dies slowly and agonizingly of cervical cancer. I attend the funeral of a friend’s teenage boy, who found out the hard way that he could not drink and drive. I feel steeped in death.
“Please don’t die, Mom,” my daughter wails. “I don’t want you to die.”
Stop it! I want to yell. Fight with your friends over toys. Throw a tantrum because I won’t buy you ice cream. But please stop pleading with me not to die, because you are breaking my heart and scaring me. I cannot face being reminded of my own mortality every few hours.
And yet I cannot lie to her, I cannot distract her. After all, how long does it take a human soul to come to terms with its own mortality? How can I deny her this? I check out a library book, When Violet Died, about children who lose a pet canary. The children plant Violet with a packet of flower seeds, and I explain how the body that Violet no longer needs will help the flowers to grow. We read it every time she asks for it, and still the litany continues: “Mom, I’m scared that you’ll die. I don’t want you to die. Mom, please don’t leave me. I will miss you too much. Won’t you miss me?”
I cry into my pillow at night, wishing I knew what to do. But this is not a matter on which I can seek guidance. There are no absolutes, and any advice I receive will be completely subjective. I look for an answer in my own heart; it tells me simply to walk through my own pain, so that my daughter might walk through hers.
One day in the car, searching for a new song to entertain her, I remember “Clementine.” Just in time, I change the lyrics–I do not want to add fuel to this fire. Instead of “You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine,” we sing, “Oh I love you, oh I love you, how I love you, please be mine.”
“Clementine” becomes her favorite song. Except that one day I forget to substitute the upbeat lyrics. “Why is she lost and gone forever?” Mira asks, puzzled. I explain that I had changed the words, so that we could sing “Clementine” the happy way and not the sad way.
“Sing the happy way,” she commands, and I comply. “Now, the sad way.” I do so. Mira looks at me, betrayed, and I suddenly realize that it is not the knowing about death that I have to protect her from. It is my own fear of death, my desire to cover it up, to push it away, to take away her pain because I find it so distressing. I take a deep breath. “Do you want me to sing it again?” I ask. She nods. “Sad or happy?” “Sad.” I do so, the first of many times.
Over the next few weeks, Clementine dominates our home. She is the subject of stories, songs, conjectures. We make up a new version of the song in which Mira rescues her from drowning and she promises never to go near the water alone again. Mira tells me that Clementine is her sister, that she sleeps in the upper bunk bed in Mira’s room (in fact, Mira still sleeps with my husband and me), and that Mira has to lift her down from her bed every morning because she has no feet.
I listen. She continues to beg me not to die. I continue to listen, but now I answer without apology. “Everyone dies. I will never leave you on purpose.”
And then, like snow melting in the spring, it is over. One day I realize that it has been weeks since she begged me not to die, weeks since we sang “Clementine” together. Her questions now deal with other things: “What would it feel like inside a leaf?” “Do they call it a drugstore because people drag things around in there?”
Like many of the mysterious surges of childhood, this one has run its course, at least for now. I don’t understand why. But I am grateful. My daughter forced me to face my fears so that I could give her the freedom to walk through her own.
Michele Winkler is the former editor and publisher of The Doula magazine. She lives in Boise , Idaho , with her husband, Dave Madorsky, and their homeschooled children, Mira (now 10) and Max (5).