Owen is preoccupied with death lately. It’s disturbing. I don’t know if we unwittingly started it, but there it is. He always starts into the topic as though we’re finishing a previous conversation. It’s especially eerie, because it makes me feel as though he’s been pondering his own mortality since we last spoke on the subject. One afternoon this week on the way home from daycare, he opened the conversation like this:
“Is your grandpa people bones?”
I didn’t understand him at first. I don’t hear so well, especially in the car. After repeating himself a couple of times, he clarified: “People bones. You know, like dinosaur bones.”
Owen was afraid of the towering dinosaur skeletons we saw at the Natural History Museum until I reassured him that dinosaurs had all died long ago. In providing this reassurance, I seem to have opened another vast chasm of fear and uncertainty.
Both my grandfathers died before I was born, so I said that yes, I suppose, my grandpa is just bones now.
“But why do people turn into bones?”
“Well, because after you die you go into the ground and …” frantically, here, I try to think of how not to explain about worms and rotting and human flesh… “and eventually all that’s left is bones.”
(Last week, on the same subject, he tried to deny that he had bones. “But we don’t have bones, mummy! That’s silly.” I showed him that he did, under his skin.)
“But I don’t want to go in the ground! I don’t want to die! No-no-no-no! I WON’T!” He protested, in a three-year old’s tantrummy denial of the inevitable.
My heart quavered a little. “But you will, honey. Not for a very long time, but you will. Everybody dies.”
“Everybody? But I don’t WANT to die.” (and repeat).
I uttered some platitudes about how he won’t die until he’s very old. The problem is, whenever I start in on this subject, he invariably asks about the likelihood of death of people he knows who are old, like his great-grandmother or great-grand-aunt. The latter is completely bedridden and though Owen hugs and kisses her like a champion, he worries about growing old, and asks me whether his legs will one day stop working. Maybe.
Faced with his repetitive denial of his own mortality, I scrambled around thinking how other people might answer these questions. Religion! What do religious people tell their children? They reassure them with angels and spirits, not bones and earth. I said, “Some people think that when you die you go live with the angels up in the sky and that you meet all the people who died before.”
But either because I didn’t sound convinced or because this prospect was equally foreign, Owen protested again: “I don’t want to go live with the angels! I want to live with you!”
I reassured him, over and over again. Then I told him that no one had ever lived forever, but if he was really, really lucky, maybe he could do it. I said he would have to eat all his vegetables, and exercise really well, and be careful with his body (including not running outside the daycare, as he had done that morning). He latched onto this possibility, fiercely.
“I will do all those things what you said,” he said. “Then I won’t die.”
As you can imagine, the conversation went around and around from there, spiralling far out of my control. I have heard of the cosmic conversations we can have with small children, but this was my first taste of it. I felt utterly out of my depth.
My instincts are telling me to speak the truth about death no matter how much it hurts but, simultaneously, I want to protect my child from this knowledge as I would try to protect him from the thing itself.