My five year old meant to visit her rabbit a few weeks back when we were at our farm. She was so excited, as she had not seen Cottontail for months. But our caretaker, oblivious to the fragility of childhood, forgot to warn me that Cottontail had died last month. And so our happy road trip turned into wails and sobs, with a set of very guilty parents. How heartless to have your daughter dream of playing with a fluffy white rabbit with a twitching pink nose, make her long for it, and then hand over an empty cage. Swap the would be experience with a tale of Cottontail, twitching pink nose, now running in fluffy clouds. I had to explain that Cottontail remembered she was needed in Rabbit Heaven last month. Her bunny had come down to earth to make friends with Sarah (my other daughter’s rabbit) and wander through our flower garden. But now it was time for her to go back to the Rabbit garden where she came from. And for a smile I said: “She’s probably very good at playing Hide-and-Go seek, as she’s as white as the clouds.”
And that was that.
And now I remember how at 5 I had my kiss of death too. My father left me for fluffy clouds a few months after my 5th birthday. I cannot remember sadness. All I could remember about his death were being dazed, confused and petrified. That people stared at me. That I was meant to look, feel and act sad but I couldn’t quite find the tears. And that everywhere, people were ordering me what to do. Wear white. Kiss the casket. Stay up late at that eerie church with the shadows. Go around kissing uncles and aunts, or drink juice. Yet I was so scared. Not about being left behind. But fearful of the unknown, which was suddenly so real. Why kiss the casket when I couldn’t see my father there. There was a dead man inside the casket and why did I have to despair about an empty shell? All I despaired about were the ghosts that hovered in that eerie church. And then there was the funeral. I was trembling and scared witless. They all thought I was wailing for the loss of my father. But no, I was frantic about letting that dead man out of the casket and burying him in the ground. Was he getting out standing, like a zombie? Or what about getting dirt on his face, into his nostrils and inside his ears? This was a horror movie made real and I was playing lead.
Because in the sorrow and in the frenzy, someone had forgotten to explain death to a child. And I had to grope my way in the dark, frantic about ghosts and zombies. I had nightmares for months and every night, I would wake up to see the ghost of my father. My mom was terrified, as I would point to the dark and say: “Mom, Poppy is there.” (So she mindlessly sends me to a psychiatrist to drive my father’s ghost out.) But my preoccupation with death and a foreboding fear of ghosts went on for years, as I needed someone to sleep with me, assuring hand on my back, for years until I had to leave home for college.
Which brings me to this. Children ought to be protected from dark things- eerie churches at night, dead men in coffins, lifeless funerals, and graveyards. A five year old shouldn’t be made to put on a dress amidst whispers and forlorn glances. She shouldn’t be hushed when she asks about her dead father, and then expected to grasp and bear it, or even cry. The ceremonial wake and funeral are empty rituals for a 5 year old. She won’t understand why there’s drinking, cigars and gambling at night when it’s supposedly a sad time. She won’t see her father being carted off to heaven in a golden fleece when she sees him in a box and buried in dirt. And big words don’t help explain the essential questions of beginnings and endings.
I wish someone had spelled it out to me then. Read me a story of caterpillars and butterflies. Or that heaven is home, it’s bright and beautiful, and so unlike the miserable dark church with the shadows. Or I wish someone had given me time to mourn, send off a balloon with ribbons, release a butterfly, instead of kiss a casket, bury the dead and be expected to cry. And maybe I needed more conversations instead of being whisked away to a psychiatrist, to drive the ghosts out. It wouldn’t have been the kiss of death at 5.
I don’t recall how the nightmares ended or that how one day I could sleep through the night without someone holding me. Or that I am no longer terrified of the ghosts I see. But life finds a way and as fate would have had it, I’m given the chance to fix things with my 5 year old and a story about bouncing bunnies in fluffy white clouds.