Two years ago, we were staying in a rambling house in Northeastern Vermont with two other families who are dear to us, gathered together for a week to celebrate the marriage of Edith and Zac. At the time, we were in between two houses, two lives.
All our belongings were in storage for the time that would elapse between closing on our old house in Lancaster and moving into a new rental in Annapolis. In the midst of those homeless days, we packed all we could into our new Prius (we had recently said goodbye to our old car, in addition to everything else). Frances had just turned three, Gabriel was three months old, Mike and I were overwhelmed, and the four of us drove twelve hours to Vermont, where we experienced a series of days that felt something like being lifted out of regular life and placed gently on a cloud (as one of our housemates later described it).
But of course we didn't forget that we were smack dab in the middle of a massive transition. One morning in the cloud house, I heard Frances stirring. She was in a room adjacent to ours, and I quietly climbed into her twin bed and snuggled up next to her. She looked at me for some time. Then she looked at the ceiling, a ponderous expression on her little face. Suddenly she looked back at me with great intensity and pointedly asked,
Did your Papa die?
Silence surrounded us. Then I told her that I missed him very much.
I do too, she said. And I knew she was telling me the truth.
That conversation ushered in a time of serious morbidity and existential inquiry. What was being alive; why did people and animals die; where did they go? Who were the relatives in her family that I knew who were dead now? Were they very very old when they died? This lasted almost a year. We wondered if it had to do with the loss of her old home and community. Was her grief being expressed somehow as three-year-old style mourning for everyone and everything that had ever lived and died in the world?
Those days are a far cry from the conversation in the backseat yesterday afternoon as I drove us home from a playdate on the Eastern Shore. As we mounted the majestic Bay Bridge, I heard Frances insisting to Gabriel: you're dead! you're dead! you have to die now! die die! And he responded with a series of refusals, increasing his volume with each repetition of I NOT DIE NOW! I NOT DEAD!!! He knows. He's approaching the age Frances was when death became a real force in her life. He's fascinated by dead bugs, dead plants, all kinds of dead stuff. And he knows he absolutely does not want to be dead, even for pretend.
Nowadays playing dead has a certain romance and mystique for Frances. She learned from her princess-loving classmates last year. They would enact their own elaborate fairty tales that featured the dramatic and satisfying death of a princess. Sometimes she came back to life, sometimes not. The game was even called "Dead Princesses." (An aside: all those old Disney princess movies should be called Dead Princesses! Sleeping Beauty and Snow White get their prince, but only by dying first.)
So after a morning of 'acting' Snow White (charming Mackenzie explained the story to Frances, who happily donned a massive curly black wig and played the wicked queen), Frances was eager to rope Gabriel in to some more dead princess play. The boy will go to all kinds of pretend places with his sister (among them: fairy woods, their wedding, a little nest where they are baby squirrels or owls, a tent, an apartment where they are Charlie and Elizabetha*...) but the afterlife? That's a no.
So death has returned as a topic of intense fascination for Frances, but now her imagination and intellect provide a protective distance from the potential emotional whammy. This morning on the way to her swimming lesson, she noticed the signage at the World War I memorial at the Naval Academy Bridge, prompting endless questions about war. Do only the bad guys die? Who can be in the army? Why do they go to the army if they might die? Why do you have a memorial if the person is already dead and can't see it? We talked and talked, and the entire time Gabriel was uncharacteristically silent. I could see him growing serious and uncomfortable. His thoughts are not sophisticated enough to protect him. He simply feels the subject matter, which is not easy.
And this morning, the girl who never forgets a birthday asked me if today was my papa's birthday. Yes, it is. And how old would he be if he were alive? Fifty-nine.
That was the end of her questions. She hit a wall. Fifty-nine is too young to be dead. Some time ago, anticipating today, Frances requested that we go out for ice cream with Grandma and Rachel and anyone else in our family we can find every year on Grandpa's birthday. This is a tradition I can get behind. So even though we can't be with Grandma or Rachel today, after Gabriel wakes up from his nap, we're going out in search of ice cream.
*Meagan: So are Charlie and Elizabetha friends? Brother and sister?
*Frances: In the early ones when we're young, like in our twenties, we're boyfriend and girlfriend but then when we stay friends for a really long time we decide we want to get married.
*Meagan: So are you married when you play now?
*Frances: Yes. Right now Charlie is 31 and Elizabetha is 39.