“Mommy, are you going to die?”–My 3.5-year-old daughter as we drove to lunch.
“What do you mean?”–Me, buying time.
“Are you going to die like GaGa Marilyn died?”
My mind raced. What did that child psychologist say when I went to consult her about the impact of my mom’s death on my then 2-year-old? What was in those books that the rabbi gave me after the funeral? What do I want my daughter to believe about mortality? What could I handle talking about as I was driving?
I decided on the truth. Or at least a version of it. Through my tears, I told my baby girl that yes, I would in fact die, but not for a very long time (I may have said hundreds of years—possibly even a million). I told her that she would be very old, much older than mommy, which in her mind, is as old as one can get. She then started to cry and said, “but I will miss you so much.” My heart broke. It broke for her that she has to know that death exists at such a young age. It broke for her that she will ever have to experience the loss I feel every day. It broke for both of us that, at any point in time, we will have to be without each other.
After comforting her as best as I could through the rearview mirror with promises of our years together, she recovered and moved on to asking me how I made my car (apparently she thinks I am very handy). I did not recover. I sat with that conversation, turning it over and over in my head. Did I say the right thing? Did I cause permanent damage? Will this be the base of years of therapy? Ultimately, I came to what I believe is the right question: What was she really asking? She doesn’t fully understand death. She struggles with its permanence, often asking when we can see my mom again. Therefore, I don’t think death was really the basis of her question.
I believe what she was really asking is, will I always be there for her? Can she count on me? When I leave, will I come back? I have learned the hard way that I can’t know what the future will hold. However, I can promise that for every day I am on Earth, the answer is yes. As I let that train of thought run, I realized, in the end, that is what matters.
Every day my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of articles about how to be the best parent. These articles dictate what to say to my daughter and what not to say to my son. They tell me how to sneak vegetables into my kids’ meals, what books to read, that I should work, that I shouldn’t work, not to yell, positive ways to discipline, not to rush my children, creative crafts I should be doing and I am sure so much more that I skip over. This is at least what I glean from the titles because who has time to actually read all of these articles let alone do all of these things? And even just the titles give me anxiety about what kind of parent I am—whether I am doing enough, making the right choices, putting enough effort into everything.
But my daughter, ever wise beyond her years, gave me the greatest gift with her questions. She gave me perspective. If I am there for her, if I make the best decisions I can with the tools that I have and not beat myself up because I am not following the guidance of all of that expert advice, (let’s be honest, I can’t even remember the advice I do read five minutes after I’ve read it), if I am intentional about the values I want to instill, if I demonstrate my love and commitment to her, then I am giving her what she is asking for. I am giving her what she needs.
In the end, the commitment and love my husband and I have for our children will guide us in our parenting and will give our kids the comfort that they need to know that we are always there for them. And one day, when we are no longer with them (millions of years from now), they won’t remember the cauliflower mac and cheese, or that we were careful not to give our daughter only pink and our son only blue. They will remember that we were always there for them. They will remember that they could always count on us. They will remember that we always came back.