It starts innocently enough: a child’s obsession with rescue vehicles. “What does the police do?” They help people. “How do they help people?” Well… I can feel my tongue slipping down the inexorable icy slope; broaching the subject of ‘bad’ hurtful people would be inevitable. And so an innocent question from a five year old evolves into a discussion on murder and prison.
The conversational topics I have covered lately with my five -year old encompass cancer, murder, prison, alzheimer’s… and there’s always the eternal, undying subject of death.
Just the other night, following the previous night’s discussion on cancer which he had prompted just as I was leaving his bedroom, Sebastian asked: “When we’re died are we died forever or do we come back as a baby and then grow again. I tried to leave the unknowns open and to suggest a faith-based response. People have different beliefs. What do you want to believe? He thought for a moment. Then: “Does what each person believes happen to each person?” Hm. Stuck. My pragmatic kindergartner wanted hard facts. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded, “but how do you know? What if you really stay died?” He then decided he was going to die at age 100 and turned away to beckon the night’s soft slumber. I smiled through the tears and turned to Liliana. She, at age three has but thoughts of jellybeans and puddles. And poo poo and pee pee: the eternally comical things in life.
Liliana doesn’t receive knowledge; she invents it. This is a child who cannot be read to or sung to; she insists on “reading” her own books, “singing” her own songs. She marches to the beat of her own drum. I like her stories. I hope she scribbles them and blares them — big, bright, colorful, and delicious. The world needs them. I need them.
Because what’s out there is less than palatable. Indeed, this has been a season of horrible, violent stories. Over the winter break, I read Margaret Atwood’s Onyx and Crake, a futuristic fantasy of a dystopian world in which genetic engineering has run amok and global devastation has spread. And saw The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. Echoing Sebastian’s enduring question and plea, I found myself imploring: Why?
I remember the first time Sebastian was hit or pushed by another boy. He was two or three at the time and all he could do in the wake of the incident was to repeat “Why? Why?” through his throbbing tears. The idea that hurt could be intentional was beyond his comprehension. I wanted to give an arm and a leg to return to the moment before, to wipe away this ugly blotch from my toddler’s as yet tender existence.
As badly as we wish to, we can’t shield our children from life’s ugly stuff. But we can teach them how to respond to it: with empathy, with loving-kindness, with courage and compassion.
A few days ago, when I didn’t promptly cooperate with his specific and elaborate game request, Sebastian told me he’s the police and will take me and put me in jail. Ha. But just yesterday, while watching some cartoon on television, where one of the characters got teased, he asked in terrible distress, “But Why?” His why’s are the path to clarity, for better or for worse.
I can only endeavor to imbue the sadness and the fear with some teachable moment, some instance of compassion: to blend the awful with the hopeful, the sad with the happy.
Sebastian’s favorite movie nowadays is RENT. (His mother’s role as bohemian in Jonathan Larson’s raucous drama accounts for the then 3 -year old’s rather early introduction to this piece.)
A little while ago he decided to broaden his repertoire of songs/scenes and we watched the I’ll Cover You Reprise – a stirring and heart-rending scene, where Collins sings to his deceased lover Angel at her funeral (Angel, the transvestite, is, as she would have wanted it, eternally a she to Sebastian. I repeatedly have to catch myself speaking of her as him. He corrects me every time.) Sebastian wants to know why Collins is crying as he sings, why he’s sad, why this song is so beautiful, why it is, as I have put it, sad and happy? I say a few words about longing and enduring love. This is me blending.
I’ll Cover You is now one of his favorite scenes. I don’t know how much of the “happy and sad” he actually gets. But there’s a delicate poignancy in his endeavor to get it, to understand, to experience. As I watch him watching this moving scene, I feel it: that happy-sadness.
Not every musical scene around here is so tender. Tonight, the kids dumped the contents of every toy bin singing out “It’s a hard knock life for us”. I felt my blood boiling and was tempted to chime in “’stead of kisses you’ll get kicked”. Then Sebastian started singing, in a sweet melodious voice: “No day but today”. I hearkened to my glorious heydays on the Venice Theatre stage, shut my eyes to the mess around me and belted out: “How about looooovve, measure in love, seasons of love”…
Forget the ugly. We’ll clean up tomorrow.