It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Don't Have the Answers, But Glad You Asked

The Challenge:  Describe your job in one sentence or less.

My Answer:  My job is to listen to kids.

OK, so sometimes "listening" comes in the form of watching them draw, or joining them as they play, or helping them surf the net, or just sitting nearby while they read.  And, of course, the kids I listen to are sick, or are recovering from being sick, or were sick in the past, or are sick again.

Leave out that last part about the sick kids, and replace what's left with the additional cleaning, laundry, dishwashing, fetching & carrying, and we've just described the Second Shift, a.k.a. The Home Front.

I admit it:  Part of me has been waiting for years for my kids to get a little older, so we could start having some real conversations, the ones that extend beyond "Why can't I have a cookie? But why?!?"  It seems that time has arrived, and the questions have been rolling in.

Elder Princeski will be ten soon, and her questions tend to reflect her newly-developing empathy and Theory of Mind.  Always the Imp has just turned six, but her line of questioning (once she gets past all those unreasonable demands resulting from her sugar addiction) has always pushed the envelope, amplifying her imp-like attributes.

Yesterday afternoon I decided it was time to euthanize the poor goldfish who, having displayed multiple signs of illness for nearly half a year (and had long since been placed in isolation from his healthier peers), was now showing acute signs of imminent status change. 

Elder Princeski took an interest and even assisted.  We used an ice-water bath, recommended as the most humane method by Dick Mills in You and Your Aquarium (London: DK), while Always hid herself away until the deed was done.  Later, of course, there were thoughts and reflections on the matter, which surfaced today during Shabbat lunch.
Always the Imp:  Mommy, when you die, I want to keep the whole house for myself.  But I don't need the things inside it, you can give those to somebody else.

Me:  [Which Left Field did that one come out of?  Oh, maybe it was the fish...] Why?  Do you want me to die soon?

Always:  Of course not, but when you do, much later, when I'm already big...

Elder Princeski:  Mommy, I don't want you to die for a long time... but when you do, I'll keep the things inside the house.  I won't need the house itself because I will be married and my husband will buy me a house.

(Short discussion on the topic of religious vs civil inheritance laws.)
The conversation then evolved into a series of questions about Grandma (that's my 95-year-old grandmother -- see here), wondering how much longer she would continue to live, and if she wants to live much longer, and whether, were she to become very sick, dependent, and pain-ridden, she would choose to die (from what she has told me in the past, I wouldn't put it past her).   

We did our best to answer all of these clearly and honestly, with equal measures of optimism and realism.

Then there were questions about death itself.  What does it feel like?, and Does it hurt? and Do people know they're dying?   I told them about the reports I had read on near-death experiences, in which people described feelings of well-being, comfort, and being reunited with lost loved ones.  I told them that no one could prove whether these things really happen, but that many people felt and believed that this is what had happened to them.

Throughout this conversation, my internal voice was asking how much of an influence my Day Job was having here on the Home Front.  I think about death a lot, because I encounter death a lot, and so it is on my mind --  sometimes at a frequency that surpasses what I would consider to be a level of healthy denial.  

I try to keep that to myself, at least around the kids, but as they grow older they develop an awareness of what I do for a living;  Elder Princeski has even accompanied me to work events a couple of times. Sometimes they ask questions about work, and while I don't shy away from answering, I try to keep my answers short and to the point.  

The thing is, kids know about death.  They think about death.  They wonder about it, and they have questions.  At a certain point, they lose their dog, or their grandfather, or their neighbor, or their parent, and they learn that death can't be avoided.   

All of this obligates us to invite their questions, listen to their concerns, and share some answers -- gradually, thoughtfully, and straightforwardly.  Which we tried to do this afternoon.

Suppertime brought with it a whole slew of questions, this time about Down Syndrome, its causes and effects.  For another time...

Keep the balance,



SuperRaizy said...

Wow. The hardest questions to answer are the ones about illness and death. Sounds like you really had your hands full.

ProfK said...

At least your questions came at home when you and your husband could be part of trying to formulate answers. My kids seemed always to pick the car during rush hour on a crowded highway to ask the big questions. One of mine piped up during a carpool packed with 5-year olds wanting to know where babies came from. Trying not to cause a multi-car pile up I reached for an answer that wouldn't get me hung by the other parents and said "the hospital." Someone in the back piped up "See, I told you so!" I sure wish my mom would have warned me what was coming.

A Living Nadneyda said...

SR - I'm not sure I find those questions the hardest to answer... but that's probably just because I have to do it so often. I find those questions the most moving to answer.

I think maybe we adults find them harder to ask... and I'm not always convinced I'd want to know all the answers.

ProfK -- I remember as a kid asking my parents certain difficult questions specifically while others were around -- friends of my parents, or older relatives.

Maybe it was a child's way of obligating the adults around me to give me an answer -- either because they serve as witnesses to the questions, or because they might provide the answers if my parents tried to get themselves out of it. Or maybe I just didn't care who was around, I had to know right now.

Either way, we all know that no one bothers to give the kids (or us parents) life's curriculum in advance, so we're all basically winging it, all the time.