We hadn’t read any of the numerous articles about “how to talk to your children about Newtown.”
For one thing, we don’t have a television, so Mariel’s exposure to news is limited. And then there’s the fact that we’ve both worked as psychotherapists/counselors. We probably thought we could handle any challenging questions; we’ve already had to respond to Mariel’s queries about where babies come from and what color she is.
But nothing prepared us to explain death to our three and a half year old.
We’d switched on NPR to hear news about Obama’s visit to Mexico, but the first segment that came on was an interview with David Wheeler, the father of six-year old Benjamin, who was killed in the Newtown school shootings.
Wheeler was audibly emotional, some of his responses choked off by the freshness of his grief. Our perceptive, curious child was listening carefully in the backseat.
“What happened to his son?” she asked us. “He was hurt,” I answered. “At school?” she asked. “Yes,” I said.
Mariel has been enamored by the idea of school as of late. The notion that there is a place where one goes to learn and play, to have a teacher and make friends, is wondrous. For Francisco and me, it is anxiety-provoking. Between the usual concerns every first world parent has about what school is best for their child’s development and future prospects, there are the concerns about finances (What kind of school can we afford, anyway?) and, increasingly, about safety (Will our kid come home from class alive?).
“Why was he hurt? Who hurt him?”
I look to Francisco and hope he will answer. One of his greatest gifts is finding the true, right words for difficult situations. And yet, one of his challenges is doing so quickly.
“Mama,” Mariel says, “who hurt the boy?”
Who? The hardest question to answer. Who hurts children?
“A man who had problems,” I say.
“He hurt the boy in the school?” she asks.
“Oh. Mama, what is the boy doing now?”
This is the moment when I wish I was a parent who said things like “Raindrops are God’s tears” or “Benjamin Wheeler is an angel in heaven now.”
But I am not that kind of parent.
It feels like everything hangs on this moment and the right response to it. Please don’t let me fuck it up.
“He’s resting, baby.”
“But Mama, the lady said the boy is dead. That means he’s not resting, right?”
Mariel has seen a dead pigeon. It’s on the sidewalk between our subway stop and home and she has watched it attentively over the course of several weeks. Even as spring finally came, pushing grass through the hard, cold earth, covering the pigeon’s decaying body a bit, she strained to see it. “Still there,” she’d say, observing its slow changes, as I wished someone would pick it up and discard it so we wouldn’t have to see it every day.
“Mama, the boy is not coming back, right?”
“No, Mariel,” I say, “the boy is not coming back.”
“Dead, not resting. Mama, Papa. I think I can help the boy,” she begins. “I can build a magic come-back machine so I can bring him back here.”
I am in the front passenger seat, my head in my hands, sobbing. How can we protect our daughter in this crazy world where troubled men shoot children and still preserve her openness, her curiosity, and her wonder? How can we protect ourselves so we never feel the ceaseless, nameless grief David Wheeler feels? I cry for the Wheelers and for other parents and for our precious, sensitive child, and I cry because I am so full of rage that I have to explain death to a three and a half year old, to a child who is at an age where everything my husband and I do feels like the imprint of an important memory that will form who she is.
“I will build a box as big as a rocket ship, with an antenna on top, and I’ll go get the boy and bring him back in the magic come-back machine,” she says. “Is that a good idea?”
“It is the best idea,” I say, before we turn off the radio and all slip into silence.