He sat on the couch in his bathing suit. It was just before bedtime. He aspired to swim earlier, but he never made it into the pool or changed into his pajamas.
There he was with his perfectly taut and full buddha belly that only a four-year-old body could pull off. As his fifth birthday inched closer, I wanted to bottle up his precious toddlerhood and save it for eternity.
I crouched down next to him, put my hand on his tummy, and said, “Can I make a wish on your buddha belly?” He laughed because I said buddha and because my hand was cold.
I closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for everyone to stay healthy while my husband was out of town for work. He was scheduled to leave the next day for at least two weeks. Healthy children and a healthy Mama were crucial for our survival.
When his giggle was complete, he said, “Mommy, what did you wish for?”
“It’s a secret,” I told him. “If I tell you what I wished for, then it might not come true.”
“Did you wish that Gertie won’t die?” he asked.
Gertie was our 10-week-old puppy.
I didn’t wish for something frivolous like new shoes, a babysitter, or a pedicure, which, by the way, my toes and feet would’ve really appreciated. I wished for good health, but suddenly even that seemed trivial.
He wanted to know if I wished for Gertie not to die. Like Harry did.
We did a lot of work – really good and really difficult parenting work – to heal and learn and grow after our beloved dog’s unexpected illness and death last fall, but we couldn’t change the fact that our young children now knew that suffering and death could happen to pets (and people) we loved at any time and for no good reason at all.
As parents, we want to protect our children from the world’s ills, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it happens anyway. Of course, there’s a sense of sadness and innocence lost that results from the unwanted exposure, but there’s also a freedom, or a release, from fear that comes with it. Whatever It is. Death. Illness. Divorce. Debt. Addiction. Fill in the blank. Once our children are exposed to It, and as along as we handle It with great care, it’s simply knowledge (and wisdom) that they’ll carry with them throughout their lives.
A year ago, “Did you wish that Gertie won’t die?” would’ve put me in a tailspin (like the night when my other son asked me if babies died when the twin towers were on fire). Now, instead of freaking out, I can address It and move on. I can be consistent, repetitive, and honest about It, and over time I can alleviate their anxiety. I can focus on helping them understand It instead of sinking in parenting quicksand. I can let It go.
“No, my Love,” I said to my boy with the buddha belly. “I didn’t wish for Gertie not to die. That would be silly. She’s perfectly healthy. I just wished for none of us to get stuffy noses while Daddy’s away.”
Then, I kissed his (un-stuffy for the time being) nose and said, “Let’s get ready for bed.”