Note: This post might be troubling for some readers who’ve dealt with violence to or the loss of a loved one.
It was Friday, and I’d just picked up the girls from school. They’d asked what our plans were for the weekend. I’d just told them that, after Saoirse’s soccer game, we were going to visit their granddad’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Quinlan asked me what a cemetery was (a question she asks me at least four times a year, and four times a year I struggle to answer it in a way that doesn’t yield fifty more questions. Four times a year, I fail miserably). I told her that’s where we bury the bodies of people after they died, and just when I felt like I had the answer good and set, she changed the conversation up on me.
“Mom?” Quinlan was in the back seat of the minivan beside her sister, buckled in, sitting on her gray-and-pink booster. We were stopped at a light in the middle of town and I’d been idly wondering if I should stop by Wegmans on the way home. “You know your friend? The one who died?”
I gulped. Quinlan is the queen of the Doom Questions. For somebody who twirls through rooms instead of walks, and sneak-punches her brother when she thinks no one’s looking, and likes to draw butterflies and stick figures of girls with bright red curls, she sure is one for existential philosophizing. If you read my post from Friday, you know that death and God kind of weaves its way through our conversations every April. Every April, I think I’m ready for them. And every April, some tall noodle of freckles (well, just one tall noodle of freckles) reminds me that I’m not.
She nodded. “Yeah. How did he die?”
Oh, shit. I didn’t say that out loud, of course. This is what I said instead:
“Um, well. He was shot, honey.”
“What do you mean, he was shot?”
It took everything in me not to give an emotional response.
“Well, he was shot. With a gun. Someone with a gun shot him.”
“Well,” I said. I was speaking slowly, trying to run each phrase through my mind before I let it come out of my mouth. “Greg was in a land far, far away, and there was a war. Greg was part of a group that was working with the people in the town to create peace. Somebody outside of their group didn’t want peace, so he shot at them with a gun.”
Quinlan gets very, very quiet when she’s processing something new. She didn’t say a word for a while.
“Was it a bad guy?”
“Yes, honey, it was a bad guy.”
“Is Greg–your friend–closed-eyed dead?”
My heart was racing around in my chest.
“Yes, honey. Greg is closed-eyed dead.”
“Mom?” Quinlan asked.
“Does it hurt? Does it hurt to get shot and be closed-eyed dead?”
“Yes, honey, I’m sure it hurt.” I wanted to add something. Just something for her to hold on to. “But then it was over, and Greg’s soul went to heaven.”
I waited for the next question, about heaven and souls and end-of-times and everything else David and I talk about matter-of-factly around the house and pray, pray, pray we know what we’re talking about. That’s not the question I got, though. I should’ve known we were still on cemeteries.
“Is Greg in the cemetery with your dad?”
“No, honey. Greg’s body was buried in a cemetery close to his family, so they can visit.”
I waited. And waited some more. Saoirse was starting to get kind of weepy–she’s a sensitive soul who’s not one for post-school minivan talks about dying–and just wanted the questions to stop. Quinlan turned to her, and I held my breath. “Hey, Seersh,” Quinlan said, and the tone of her voice was back to normal. “Do you want to play Shopkins when we get home?” And that was that.
I’ve had friends tell me that they haven’t brought up half (most) of the stuff we’ve discussed with our kids. But when the girls ask questions, we answer them, always, as honestly (and briefly) as possible. I learned very quickly that kids will press for more if they’re ready for it (as happened that day in the car), but that usually–excuse me while I knock on wood–the simplest answer to a question is the one that works best.
The questions are getting harder, though. The kids aren’t really settling for the easy answer anymore. And they’re remembering. One night, I was driving them home from a visit in Maryland with David’s side of the family. He’d had to catch a flight for work, so it was just us. I’d pulled off the highway to get the kids something to eat, and as we were heading down the exit ramp toward the fast food restaurant, Quinlan (always Quinlan) said this:
“Mom? How does a baby get made? I mean, we know that a sperm and an egg have to join together to make it, but exactly HOW does one get to the other?” I’m not making this up. This is exactly what she said to me, as I sat there waiting for a light to turn green, as I dreamed of French fries and maybe a diet Coke. I deflected it that time–“Oh, before I answer that, Quinn, where would you guys like to eat?”–but. But. The questions keep coming. And I have to keep hoping for the right answers.
She didn’t ask me to elaborate on the birds and bees again that evening, but the question will come again soon. Quinlan’s already an expert on the two ways a baby can be born, and knows what a c-section scar looks like and and exactly what kind of anesthesia is used in most cases. (Her sister thinks that the old-fashioned way of giving birth is pretty much the grossest thing that can ever happen to a woman and has vowed to never have children. I will hold her to this for the next decade and a half or so.) Again, can’t make this up. This kid. This kid. I love, love being a mom, you guys. You know that. And Quinlan is like no other kid I’ve ever met, and I love that. But I will tell you one thing I know for certain: adulthood has not prepared me well enough to be a parent. Not to a child who wants to know all of the things, all of the time, anyway. And now that our conversations extend from life and death to friendship and mean girls and playground games gone wrong, my responses are becoming more difficult to piece together.