By Kimberly Chisholm
"When Andie gets to first grade like me she will see the saddest, most awful thing." My son's voice is measured, his chin down-tilted and eyes serious.
I lower Jamberry and two-year-old Quentin hops off the couch. Will sits on one side of me. On the other sits Andie, who scoots forward. "What will I see, Will?" Irrationally, my mind touches on "Red Asphalt" from Drivers' Ed, Biafran babies, Clockwork Orange.
"It's awful," Will says again.
"You'll see it next year," he says. He looks to me.
I raise my eyebrows, fingering the worn edge of the board book, feeling the heft of others under it, on my lap. Whatever he says—whatever havoc it wreaks on my sensitive daughter—books will see us through.
In this very stack is Peter Mayle's Where Did I Come From?, pulled from my childhood home—minutes from here, a place we spend hours sliding the mahogany library ladder along the endless bookshelves stretching from hardwood floor to high ceiling. Where Did I Come From? became a necessity one afternoon when Andie's voice sallied from the backseat: "So…when the sperm comes out of the man's penis does it just sort of fly over and up into the mommy?"
They love Where Did I Come From? exactly as I did, giggling at the rotund mommy and daddy standing naked together in the tub, the chubby sperm with his debonair black bow-tie and red rose, ready to woo the unsuspecting ovum. Upon the first reading Will cried, "What? Why are you laughing, Mommy?" at the description of the orgasm as a long-anticipated and extra-special sneeze. Each time we revisit it, I look forward to Andie's sympathetic nod when Mayle explains that parents don't make love all day because it's tiring—just like jumping rope!
From Will's grave eyes, though, I sense this may not be an afternoon for Where Did I Come From?
"I'm not sure she should hear this."
"Well…" I consider. It seems we are headed for books more like those I sought when my grandmother died last year. We got the call from my aunt who had had tried to reach my mother but had failed. Andie stood solemn in the kitchen, listening. She was oddly quiet on the drive to my mom's office, but then rushed up to my mother before I could utter a word. She blurted out the first of the zillion penetrating and morbid and heart-wrenching questions that would color the months to come: "Are you so so sad that Nona died? Is it making you so sad?"
We all drove the five hours to my grandmother's house and that night Andie lay in the guest bed next to me, Will and Quentin already asleep.
I could feel it formulating in her, the question I had been dreading my entire six years of mothering.
"What happens when you die?"
Ever the good agnostic, I answered her honestly: "I don't know, Andie."
An enormous mistake.
Her obsession grew harrowing. Dozens of questions every day for months:
"If Nona died in the dressing room, did she just—poof!—disappear and leave a pile of clothes?"
"Did it feel funny when she died?"
"What's the difference between dying and getting killed?"
"Then if you get killed on a motorcycle on the way to the store, do you ever get to the store?"
"How do you know you are dying?"
I did everything to undo that first night's damage. She needed no doubts, no ambiguities, none of my existential angst. I betrayed my agnosticism to provide this worried child unequivocal answers: God, Heaven, Angels, afterlife… I delivered the whole spiel. More convincing, though, were the books: Where Does God Live? What Is Heaven? God Is All Around You! Multi-denominational, warm and colorful, immensely reassuring. Slowly they worked their magic.
One day I pulled down God and Me.
"Mommy," said Andie, "I don't need those books. I'm not worried about that stuff anymore."
Andie was no longer worried partly, I believe, because of how Will had honored his sensitive sister's fears. Once his playdate Josh had shouted "Kill!" during an elaborate Bionicles showdown in which the boys had graciously let Andie take part. Josh earned a quick and panicked admonition from me, and the sage suggestion from Will that they use the word "defeat" instead. Cautiously, Will spent months inserting "defeat" whenever necessary. Once, even, as he and Andie bent over a motionless worm on a damp sidewalk, he said, "Oh, look. That poor worm is defeated."
"Go ahead, Will," I say now. "I think it's okay. Andie's in kindergarten, right, Andie? I think you're ready for what Will has to say." She is a bright, resilient kid. I can't shelter her forever. There will be books to rescue us.
"It's awful," he says. "Mrs. Arneson will show it to you. In the library."
Andie's eyes widen.
"There are lots of them." Will's mouth is grim, a straight line. "The worst one is from a kindergartener. It's a Kindergarten Take-Home Book. It's raped."
I look to him, alarmed.
"I mean ripped," he says quickly, shaking his head. "The page is totally ripped. They used the worst tape to try to fix it. It's all bent."
Andie looks aghast.
"But that's not the worst. There's one that's drawn all over in black crayon. You can't even read the words."
"Ooh," she breathes.
Inside I beam. I revel in their horror.
"Yeah, it's awful." He pauses. "I think it's good you know. Now you'll be ready. You'll see all those books all ruined and torn and stuff. It's the most awful thing."