“Mommy, am I going to die?”
I froze. My quiet one-on-one time with Little Miss that afternoon suddenly became deafeningly loud. I’m not sure what prompted this question, but there it was all the same, and along with it, the shadow of dread. I knew this moment would come, but it was too soon. Way too soon. I wasn’t prepared. Although, I don’t know if I would’ve been at any other time either.
I put away the book on my lap that we were reading, took a deep breath and slowly turned to my four-year-old, wishing that in the two seconds it took me to do all of that, I would have a good answer for her. Except there is no good answer to that question is there?
I held her hopeful gaze, and responded matter-of-factly, “Yes.”
Alarm spread across her face. “But I don’t want to die!”
“I know, babe, but we all do. That’s just what happens. To all of us.” Each word fell out of my mouth with a dull, heavy thud.
She started to cry. Realizing her own mortality is one thing, but that we would all die was too much for her. Way to go, mama.
However, her next reaction surprised me: “If daddy dies and if you die, how’s Thumper going to get her milk?!”
I couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. I didn’t expect her to worry about who would nurse her little sister upon our demise, but I suppose that’s just how the mind of a four-year-old works. They grasp at the things they can comprehend.
“Well, I hope that by the time we die, she will no longer need to be nursed. You know how you’re drinking cow’s milk now? Well, she’ll get there too.”
That answer seemed to satisfy her, but that was only the beginning of a barrage of questions and concerns that came my way in between fearful sobs.
“Who will drive me to places?”
“I don’t want us to not have a mommy or daddy. If you leave us, we’ll be all alone.”
“Will you make sure we have a new mommy and daddy?”
I held her and stroked her hair as I fielded her questions, my voice quivering. With each answer, she’d pull away to look at me, as if searching my face to see if it matched the answers that appeared from my mouth, making it impossible for me to say anything but the truth.
And the truth, this truth, hurts.
Because I have no fairy-tale endings for this girl, who was, at that moment, sitting next to me in her Snow White gown.
“If you kiss me, will I wake up?” she asked, and I didn’t lie.
And because I’m not religious, I couldn’t promise her a heaven - no choir of angels and cute little puppies in the ever after for us. I could only tell her what I knew.
Which wasn’t much.
I tried to quell her fears by deflecting the possibility of death to a time that’s far removed from the present, but words like “eventually” and “someday” mean so little to someone who can barely grasp the concept of next week.
As I fumbled in the dark myself to bring my sad and confused little girl some light, I realized just how ironic this was because I could scarcely escape my own anxiety when I think about losing the people I love too.
But when she finally said, “Mommy, if you die, it will break my heart,” I crumpled.
That’s when we just held each other and sobbed. I felt like so many moms would probably have said something more comforting, more intelligent, more reassuring. Just more. Instead, I only apologized to her, over and over, for not being able to give her the answers she wanted to hear.
I also cursed my luck - Why don’t these questions come up when she’s with her dad? Why do I always get the hard questions when I’m the one who’s emotionally ill-equipped? The one who cries at commercials and tears up at posters of abandoned animals.
As our tears subsided, a petty gold box caught my eye. Chocolates. My Guy gave them to me for Valentine’s day, and I had brought them out to share with Little Miss during our quiet time together while her sister was napping. It was our little secret, and she was absolutely thrilled. Chocolate also happens to be her favorite thing in the world. But super secret chocolates? Even better.
Even though we’ve already indulged earlier, I reached for the box that had been sitting in front of us, opened it, and held it in front of her. At the sight of the little gems, her mood changed almost immediately. She gingerly picked one for herself and one for me, excited to be having another again. In the same afternoon!
Then we sat with our backs on the couch, next to each other, and savored the treat in our mouth wordlessly. When our watery gaze met, she smiled. The clouds lifted, and just like that, she was all sunshine again.
We’ve been reading “Aesop’s Fables” to Little Miss at bedtime every day this week, so I feel like I should end with a moral, so here it is, the moral of my story today:
Mommy may not always have the answers, but she will at least have chocolate.
What’s your most dreaded question? Do you prepare your answers in anticipation of moments like this or do you just wing it?