Yesterday, upon waking from his nap, my son went about his normal routine. Cuddle in his bed with mom, wander into the living room, beloved blanket nigh nigh trailing behind him like a train, couch flop and request to watch “a little bit of a movie”. The exact order. My husband and I don’t have cable. Now, we’re not pretentious or anything, nor are we destitute, but my husband can’t watch commercials without launching into a rant, and I don’t like TV enough to pay for variations of the same mediocrity spanning hundreds of channels. Our solution is a little box which we stream Netflix and Amazon On Demand through, where we avoid commercials, and where my son dominates the “suggested watch list” with Nick Jr. and PBS shows alike.
Yesterday, he saw in the suggestions a film titled A Cat in Paris. This film — which I knew nothing of until yesterday — looked harmless, read like a silly romp about a cat burglar who was an actual feline, and featured clever animation reminiscent of the classic children’s tale “Zin Zin the Violin”. Fine. I put it on for him, sitting on the couch for a couple of minutes until he sent me off to our kitchen for a snack and milk, with the requested “pweease” and grin.
When I returned, there was nothing at all alarming on the screen, but Sam was no longer reclined or docile. He turned to me and very simply said, “That man killed the little girls father.” I was understandably thrown by this statement and those words leaping from my three year olds tongue. I asked him if we could turn the movie off, to which he gave a bored nod and crunched a graham cracker. I tried to broach the topic over the course of the afternoon, but was met with tempered indifference and requests to put on his Spiderman mask “so he could be Spiderman.”
This morning, as if sharpened somehow by sleep, Samuel (sitting pin straight on his alphabet mat with his Superheroes strewn around him) said, very cooly, “That man killed the little girls father?” And I was at a loss for how to answer him. I considered a few approaches, ranging from feigning ignorance to telling him death wasn’t scary, to trying to ascertain what he knew of death at three years old. I settled on promising that man and that little girl weren’t real, just a cartoon, and therefor he didn’t need to worry about them. He shrugged and handed me Iron Man, but confusion still flickered in his eyes.
My response was in no way a brush off, but merely my acceptance that this subject is too big to sound byte. Ultimately, as a three year old, his grasp of life and death is still very fuzzy. He has never been exposed to great loss, and even if he were, I do not know how concrete a concept ceasing to exist is or how capable he is to hold it in his mind. Those are questions for someone else to answer professionally, with fact and science that tells us when we are able to measure the missing of someone with the memory of them existing and the knowing that they no longer do.
In the span of that moment, watching him fiddle with Iron Man’s moveable limbs, I saw that he had glimpsed something real and confusing and he was not sure why it didn’t make sense. So young, he touched a truth he will someday (because this is a fate none can escape, even if we wish our babies could) face head on, or sideways, or in great heaving breaths. That is a fact, it will not cease because we wish it to. Even after I held his superhero — cast in invincible metal and warding his own mortality away like a plague— I wanted for him to hold onto the time of not knowing. And isn’t that what our heartache, as parents, is built on? Not will they run the car into a ditch when their sixteen, or will they get drunk and end up on YouTube mooning a cop? Because aren’t those very tangible — though no less controllable — concerns born from this very place? This place of knowing the road. And isn’t that why we do it to begin with? Why we keep on doing it?
For me, the time of not knowing ended at four years old, when my mother gave birth to twins who never left the hospital. I do not remember the time of not knowing. I cannot. For Sam, for now, the understanding of true death is still a distant dark cloud on his vast horizon. He is still without the knowledge. For now, that is something for us both to safeguard. Him by his ignorance and me by my understanding. I will keep holding on until the glass shatters, then I will hold him, and tell him what I know, and know someday that will become an answer worth remembering.
(*An aside about the movie: it was an Academy Award nominee, and I actually want to watch it on my own at some point because I think I would rather enjoy it.)