The Big Question

I knelt in front of him to zip up his windbreaker and, as always, Lyle immediately dove straight into my arms, face buried in my neck with his great bear hug.   But this time the hug was accompanied by a question.  A big one.

“Mommy?” he said, speaking directly into my hair.  “When will our days be all done?”

Assuming he had accidentally added the plural “s” to day due to some serious nap-refusing fatigue, I grinned and said, “The day will be done tonight, Sweetie, after dinner, when you’re in your pajamas and get into bed.  That will be the end of the day. I know you’re tired and would like it to be the end of the day soon.”

But he pulled away from me just enough that his big brown eyes were mere inches from my own and I could see that I had gotten it wrong.  “No, Mommy.  All of our days.  When will all of our days be all done?” and then buried his face back into my neck and began to cry.

In the moment, all I could think to say was, “We’ll have as many days together as we need, Lyle. As many as we need,” as I continued to hold him close.

I still don’t know what he meant for sure, but as the afternoon and evening wore on I picked through my memories of recent conversations around the house; most of them were with Baxter, but Lyle had been present.  Jokes with Baxter about how he’ll someday dream of moving out on his own because I’ll drive him nuts (which he cannot believe right now, the sweet boy) and be ready to go his own way.  Conversations about the year after next, when Lyle will go to kindergarten and be in school with Baxter.  It would not surprise me to learn that my 3-year old has heard those things and felt some pangs of separation anxiety, and so I checked in on those topics today and made sure he understood that he’d be with us just as long as he needed to be.

But I think today’s tearful exchange was about death.  My first thought was, “No, he’s too young for that,” but then I recalled that Baxter was deep into the topic of death at the time of Lyle’s birth,  and had been peppering us with questions on the subject for a couple months prior to that.  (I recall vividly sitting on the sofa breast-feeding newborn Lyle, Baxter perched on the chair across from me, leaning forward and asking with intensity, “When are you and Daddy going to die, Mommy?”)  That places his initial awareness at Lyle’s current age, 3 years 8 months.

It’s an important developmental stage, I know that, but I absolutely dread going through it again. Seeing my own mortality through my child’s eyes, and not having any real guarantee for him that I’ll be around as long as he and I would both wish is depressing to me.  I have felt really sad ever since this conversation.

“When will all of our days be done, Mommy?”

I wish I knew how to even begin to answer that.

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10 responses to “The Big Question

  1. My almost 4yo recently started with the, “Will you be my mommy forever?” questions and oh, does it hurt my heart to have to consider the conversation going further than that. Our grade 1-2 RE classes (UU also) recently did a class on death and I’ll have to see if I can find the blurb on it from the newsletter—there was a specific book they read.

  2. Oh man, between this post and Kristen’s today, I am bawling my eyes out! This is a topic that I cannot even begin to wrap my brain or heart around. All I can do is sit here and cry and send hugs, lots of hugs.

  3. oh my! lyle is so sweet and sensitive!

    we’ve been at the stage of death talk for a number of years but fluffy doesn’t have the same grasp on it as lyle. fluffy thinks it’s all sensical, you get smarter and stronger as you get older until you’re at your peak around 100 and then you die. i’m the one with the lump in my throat when he asks me, ‘how many minutes until you’re dead?’ because for me, it’s all TOO real while for him it’s a math problem.

  4. What a sweet sweet boy that Lyle is. I love the answer you gave him. As much time as we need is the perfect response. Isn’t that all any of us can hope for?

  5. THat was a perfect answer you gave him. It tugs at the heartstrings having a conversation like that, little ones grappling with the idea of the death and us big ones grappling with our mortality.

  6. What a great post. I too wonder what to say to my six-year old when she starts to delve into the existential questions. She too has gotten emotional when asking the questions, but mostly is concerned about my getting gray hair. “But I don’t want you to have gray hairs.” We need to work on that one.
    Anyways, thanks for stopping in with your two cents over at Babycenter’s Momformation blog. I appreciate it.

  7. Oh, I remember this so well. Jack went through the exact same phase. It is hard, isn’t it? They get so sad, and for the first time, maybe, it’s not possible for us to comfort them, at least not wholly.

    Sigh.

  8. All three of my children entered this phase at about the same age that you write about, but I think the experience was somewhat different.

    My oldest, when he was three, asked his mother this way: when little me gets to be big me will big me get old and die? It can be tough to say the words, “Yeah, kid. Yeah. Someday, you, too, are going to die.” But it really didn’t phase him that much. I think kids must have a far greater reserve of natural faith. Maybe they have to, which is probably why Jesus was pretty brutal about shielding their access to Him.

    I don’t know, maybe my family is just crazy, but we all get a little jazzed when we occasionally talk about death or praying for the big What Comes Next. That isn’t to say that 99% of the time we aren’t very much in the here and now, but it always amazes me when I can eavesdrop on my 3 and 5 year-olds death conversations. Just yesterday, the littlest ones had a pretty good one as we were eating lunch.

    Admittedly, I (respectfully) have a different faith, so there may be different nuances to this, but I’m not sure if that explains all of it. Some of it may be the difference between mothers and fathers, and some of it is just latent differences in people. In any case, I hope the death talks get easier and your dread goes away. Of course, I’ve noticed in the job description for parenting the word “easier” does not appear!

  9. Oh wow, this is a rough question. I feel for you.

  10. I’m so glad you reminded me of this post. You DID give the perfect answer… I wish I had answered the same way when my son asked me just the other day. They are so complex, these kids, aren’t they? It’s something I am never fully prepared for, these deep, pondering life questions.

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