dead bird (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

(It’s that dead bird again)

Well, at bedtime Amie again asked to talk about the dead baby penguin. Again she wanted to know why there was no blood. Was it really dead? I explained that it died because it was too cold. Probably its heart stopped working. I explained that our blood needs to circulate – go round and round – in our bodies and that the heart is a big pump that does that, and we listened to each other’s heartbeat (it will be a new game; she also loves to put her ear to my jaw when I eat crunchy things, which makes her laugh out loud). Then we slowly came to the heart of the matter, for her, on this evening.:

– If you’re a human, do you have to be a grown-up to die?

– Well, sometimes children die too, but not so often. They’d have to be really sick, or in an accident.

– But if S [friend at school] died, I could no longer play with her. I could still play with C and E, though [more friends at school]. But not with S anymore.

– Well, mostly, in this country, children grow up to be adults.

– But I was really sick, and I didn’t get dead.

– That wasn’t sick enough. Much sicker.

– If we die together, like in an accident, we could hold hands and still love each other. If you die first, I will still love you. But I will still have Baba and S and C and E at school to play with. That will be ficient [sufficient]. But I will still love you even though you’re dead. And I could still hug you, if you die with your arms open a bit [demonstrates]. Not if you close your arms [narrows her arms], then I wouldn’t fit. We could hold hands then.

– Usually, though, when someone dies, they take away the body, because it gets all smelly and rotten, because the blood no longer circulates through it and so no longer keeps it fresh. So they bury it in the ground or burn it up in a big, bright flame.

– I will still love you then, even though you’re not here.

Then the conversation turned to whether all her friends, E and C and some others (note: not S anymore) could come and live with us, and where would be put them to sleep and where would their Mamas and Babas sleep.

None of this – and nothing in our earlier conversations – was said morosely or sadly. It was simply matter-of-fact talk. She is trying out the concept of death, lingering mostly at its fringes: the poses we die in, would there be blood. Sometimes she gets at the heart of it, like today, when she considered what it would be like if her friend or I died, what she would do, if it would still be sufficient for her. But even then it is a trying-out of the thought of it, not the feeling. That’s why I am not worried: it is safe. And being so open about it, answering all her question without flinching, safeguards that safety and her trust in me.

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