Every night when I put Emi to bed, she asks me questions in the dark. She asks things like, “How do turtles eat if they don’t have teeth?” “How do ducks float when their feathers get wet?” “Why do people have dreams?” “When you were a little girl, where was I?” “When I’m a teenager, will you still be my mommy?”
Most of them I try to answer, though to be honest, when it’s getting late and I just want her to go to sleep, my answers can be sketchy at best. Usually we discuss one or two of her queries for a little while, and then she falls silent. Then we lay there in the dark together, me hoping she’s drifting off toward dreamland, and her thinking up more things to ask me. Just as I’m sure she’s fast asleep, I hear her little voice asking one last question, most likely one whose answer involves a lengthy explanation, like, “How does my esophagus work?”
The other night, her last question was, “When am I going to die?”
Why oh why couldn’t we go back to the opening question she’d asked, I thought. I can tackle “why do we call Sweetie’s feet paws and not hands?” I can deal with “why is Nate a boy and I’m a girl?”
I can’t handle the death questions.
But I just said, as calmly as I could, laying there with her in the dark, “Well, nobody knows when they’re going to die. But I can tell you that most people die when they’re very, very old.”
“Do they die in a hospital?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I told her, wincing a little as I realized that might not be the most reassuring answer, since her doctor daddy spends most of his time there.
“Do they die when they’re as old as Grandma and Grandpa?” she wondered.
“Sometimes, but not usually,” I said, thinking that I definitely didn’t want her to worry about Grandma and Grandpa dying, but wondering if my answer might make her start wondering about people dying when they’re young.
“Only people die when they’re really older,” she said, as though it were really true.
“Well, yes,” I said, thinking to myself, for the purposes of this conversation, yes. Nobody dies at night, since it’s night right now; nobody dies in the hospital, since that’s where Daddy is 24/7; nobody dies when they’re really young, since you’re only four and I don’t want you obsessing that you’re going to drop dead any minute.
“But how am I going to die?” she asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t think anyone knows how they’re going to die.” I paused for a moment while she considered this, and then I asked, “Why are you thinking about this, Em?”
“Oh,” she said. “Because I had a dream that I died.”
“Wow,” I said, stalling for time. “What happened in your dream?”
Emi has always been a little eerie about certain things — asking especially prescient questions or saying exactly what I was thinking. When she was a baby, she once cried for hours due to stomach pain and all our electronics went on the fritz. A few months ago, she woke from a rare nap saying, “I never got any Hello Kitty Band-Aids!” for no apparent reason; then I went to get the mail and discovered a letter to Emi from her aunt that included a bunch of Hello Kitty Band-Aids — as a surprise. Even now sometimes when Emi plays with her Leap Pad, instead of putting the activator pen thing on the book, she’ll draw it along her fingers. The toy still works as if she’s touching something on the page. So, given all that, I was a little freaked.
“Well, I was in a forest and I ate a poisoned apple,” she said. I sighed with relief as she began relating your basic Snow White scenario. “And then I died. What happens after you die, Mommy?”
“I don’t really know,” I said. “What happened in your dream?”
Emi smiled and said, “I died and then I was a little baby again, and I did everything all over!”
“Well, maybe that’s what happens after you die. Do you think?” I said.
Having settled that, she quickly fell asleep, leaving me laying next to her, pondering her questions into the night.
Tonight, as I was putting her to bed, she asked, “Mommy, is Judy Garland dead?” We’ve been watching a lot of The Wizard of Oz, which has a lot of talk about death for an uplifting musical classic. “Yes, she is, sweetie,” I said.
“But when we watch her in the movie, it’s just like she’s still in the world, right, Mommy?”
“It is, Em, that’s a really nice way to think about it.”
She was silent for so long I thought she’d gone to sleep. But then I heard her say, “Mommy? Do the days just go on and on and on? Even after someone dies, the days just go on?”
“Yes, they do,” I said. “The days go on and on. And if someone dies, the days go on and on for other people.”
“Even if mice die, the days go on and on?”
“And even if people die, the days go on and on, for other people who not die,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why do the days just go on and on and on?”
“I don’t know, sweetie, but they do. When we wake up it will be another day. So let’s stop talking now and go to sleep.”
And we did.