A couple of months ago, Arty and I were walking home from the shops when we came across a dead bird.
It was lying on the grass with it’s wings partially extended, it’s black feathers no longer as glossy as they would have been in life.
“What’s that, Mama?”
“It’s a bird that has died.”
I suddenly became very aware that this was one of those formative, world-view-shaping moments. This was a parenting thing that I could absolutely fuck up. I’d wanted to have a ready answer when the death question came, but I wasn’t expecting it this soon, and it felt exactly like sitting an exam I hadn’t studied for (I imagine – I’ve never actually sat an exam without studying).
“Well… When a bird has died, it doesn’t do any of the things that make it a bird any more. It doesn’t sing, or fly, or make nests. It’s body stops working, and it’s not a bird any more.”
That seemed enough.
Then just the other day, we were out walking again. We were holding hands in the autumn sunshine, and our conversation was mostly about the shapes of leaves, the plot of Knuffle Bunny, and whether or not you can step on your own shadow. But when we passed the spot where the bird had lain he paused for a moment and said solemnly, “People don’t die.”
I couldn’t believe it. How had he made the leap from birds to people on his own? How much had his little three year old mind been grappling with this big, unfathomable stuff in the intervening weeks? How had I managed to find myself in this same exam room, completely unprepared, for the second time in as many months?
“Yes, sweetheart, they do…”
I felt awful. He hadn’t asked me if people died, he’d asked for confirmation that they couldn’t possibly, and I hadn’t been able to give that to him. He’d looked to me for reassurance that it wasn’t in my power to give him. He looked solemn, and was quiet.
I couldn’t leave him with that reality hanging over him. So I offered what reassurance I could.
“They do. But usually only when they’re very old or very sick.”
Maybe that wasn’t the truest truth. A lot was contained in that “usually”. A million dreadful exceptions. But there’ll be time enough for those.
Time enough for him to learn that people die when mountains fall on them, or when their governments have something to prove. They die because they love the wrong person, or the colour of their skin offends someone. He’s only three. He’s only three, and the terrifying unpredictability of accidents, and the awful reality of intentional killing, seemed like too much to burden him with.
By now we were quite a way down the street from where the bird had been. I squeezed his little hand.
“You don’t need to worry about that for now, ok?”