Whenever it’s Ittybit’s turn to lead circle time at the Marilla Cuthbert Academy for Unspeakably Charming Children there are problems.
It always starts out fine; she counts how many children are in class, duck-duck-goose style, and chooses the correct weather face from the bulletin board to match the environmental goings on outside without hesitation. She recites how many people live with her now with the added joy of being able to talk up her little brother. (He’s cute, but he eats paper.) She tells the class that she’d like to own a cat but that her parents “really aren’t cat people.” She explains that she will be able to get a cat of her very own when she lives in her very own apartment. “That’s what my Mommy told me,” she says proudly.
When Ittybit goes on to describe how many pets ACTUALLY live at our house, though, it gets tricky. It’s always the pets we DON’T have that are the problem.
The teachers know it, too. They try to quicken the pace, hoping to circumvent the inevitable by will and speed. They even try to skip the part about pets all together, but she can’t let it rest.
“Well, we USE to have TWO dogs – Maddy and Maggie – but Maggie died and now we only have one dog, Madeline. That’s her long name. She’s kind of a jerk when she knocks me over. She also likes to lick my brother.”
It’s been a year since our old dog — one of two canine companions — passed away and still Ittybit counts her as part of the family, once removed.
Death is a delicate subject. No one really wants to think about it let alone discuss it, which, of course, is why Ittybit brings it up on a daily basis.
“MOM!!!! Champ ate some paper. He’s not going to DIE is he? ... I. Don’t. What. Him. To. Die,” she stammers in distress.
“Why is she so fixated on death,” my husband quizzes me accusingly, wondering if his wife’s less than sunny outlook on life has rubbed off on our perceptive little girl.
“She’s four,” has become my standard answer. “It’s a natural question.”
I was just about four the first time I realized the world wasn’t such a wonderful place.
There I was, happily unaware, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ Buick when the radio news reported a story about a mother who had murdered her children.
I understood the words but not the situation. My brain turned over more words: “People kill people? Not possible.” I took a long look at my mother in the front seat and wondered … “Could she?” But I never uttered a word. I just sat there and wondered. Eventually I started asking questions about people from history who HAD killed other people. I made my parents explain why John Wilkes Booth would want to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, asking the same questions over and over again. I wanted to know all the gory details.
But now, a year after we laid Maggie to rest, Ittybit is catching on that death visits others, too.
“Why do people have to die?”
The curtain opens and the spotlight shines in my direction, blinding me with its light.
All I want to do is say: “I don’t know.”
I don’t want to explain that eventually everyone’s body fails them and they go back to the earth. I don’t want to tell her that life is unpredictable. I don’t want to think about it myself now that she’s such a big part of my life.
No, I want to tell her that life is such a wondrous, amazing thing even if you are sick or weak or old; even when it’s raining outside, or when your parents send you to your room, or when you think there’s nothing to do and you’ll never have any fun ever again. Life is grand even if you have to eat brussel sprouts.
I curse my husband’s visible shrugging off of the concept of an afterlife. I don’t want to tell her that some people believe the spirit lives on but that we don’t. The End is too final a thing, and I don’t want to think about any world without her in it.
So I put it off.
I tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about any of that now, and I hope it’s true.