As anyone who is a parent can attest to, there is rarely a dull moment when there are kids around. This past weekend alone was filled with moments of extraordinary contrast and wonder.
– The moment when Rhys told me I was the best daddy ever
– The moment when Arwen packed out laughing after learning to say winner winner, chicken dinner
– The moment when Rhys starting riding his bike without training wheels
– The moment when I walked into Arwen’s bedroom after her nap and watched a large lump of poo being quenelled by the movement of the door after she had once again decided to take her nappy off during nap time and had chosen to add some fresh bodily waste to an already beleaguered carpet.
That last moment spawned lots of little moments that will stay with me, not least of which was grabbing a wet wipe in both hands and cleaning the underside of the door in a sawing motion not unlike the one you make when trying to towel your back after a shower.
Despite this beginning, I’m not here to talk shit.
Rhys broke my heart tonight.
I tucked him into bed and as normal we had a story from his epic collection of Thomas The Tank Engine books. Our heads were on the pillow and we were jointly cuddling a small blue and green toy dog.
“You really love Scout don’t you big guy?”
“YES daddy! He’s my favourite toy EVER.”
“That makes me very happy. The lady who bought that for you was very special, in fact she knew me when I was little just like you.”
“She died didn’t she daddy? Just like Polly.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this at first. Polly was a beautiful ginger cat who had adopted us before Rhys was born and died on Christmas Eve two years ago. The family friend who died was a wonderful (and no less beautiful) lady called Myra who along with her husband Clive had been Aunt and Uncle to me for as far back as I can remember.
It’s hard to know how to tackle death with children and like most things it’s a subject that evolves along the way. With Polly it was simply a case that after several months of driving past the vet on a daily basis and listening to Rhys say “That’s where Polly is sleeping. Will she come home when she wakes up?” we decided to explain that Polly had died and wouldn’t ever be coming home. When Myra passed away we explained to Rhys that she was no longer with us without making a big fuss and left it at that.
“Yes, she died Rhys, but she would be very happy to know how much you love Scout.”
And then it came.
“Why do people die dad?”
Kids ask a lot of tough questions and I’m only scratching the surface of what will no doubt come as they get older. Until today the toughest one was genital related and we’ve settled on cookie-that-is-also-called-vagina and winkie-that-is-also-called-penis. This has led to two knock-on effects so far:-
– Arwen yells out wash the COOKIE every time she has a bath
– We have no idea what to call large flat American style biscuits
Death is in a whole different league. But I did the only thing I could do. I tried my best.
“Well big guy sometimes people’s bodies get very old and parts of their body don’t work so well any more and so they die. And sometimes they get very sick and medicine can’t make them better and so they die. They just go to sleep and don’t wake up.”
“I’m scared to die daddy.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of Rhys. You aren’t going to die for a long, long time. Think of how old daddy is. Think of how old Grandpa Micky is. You have a long life to live.”
“But what happens when they go to sleep daddy?”
“They just sleep Rhys and they don’t wake up.”
By now he is staring at me with big tear-filled eyes and I’m drowning.
“But what happens when you die daddy?”
I’m not a spiritual person but I’m also not sure how you tell a five year old “Well, as far as I’m concerned bugger all happens and you just become worm food.”
“Well, some people believe that your soul and your mind come back as something else. Maybe a cat, or a leaf or a star. And some people believe that you just stay asleep.”
“But I don’t want to come back as something else daddy. I want to be me. So will my body just stay asleep and then I will be nothing?”
“I don’t know Rhys. But that might be what happens.”
“I don’t want to be nothing daddy.”
After that there was much hugging, hair stroking and kisses. I told him over and over that there was nothing to be scared of even though lots of people die.
“How many people dad?”
“Lots of people Rhys.”
“Even Che Guevara?”
He’s a big fan of the t-shirt we brought him from Cuba.
“Yes, even Che Guevara – he died a long time ago.”
After a few more cuddles I climbed out of his bed to let him go to sleep. I had reached the door, when…
“I’m scared of being nothing but I’m going to hold Scout very tight and then if we die we can be together and we won’t be scared.”
I dust-panned up my heart later on.
About an hour later we heard him coming up the passage towards the living room and found him sitting in the hallway clutching Scout.
“I’m still scared to die.”
After a few cuddles I took him back to the room and tucked him in once again.
“What can I do to make it better Rhys?”
He looked at me and thought for a little while, and then gave a smile.
“You must tell my body that he mustn’t die and that if he does he must still be Rhys.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Where should I talk to him – through your tummy?”
So I ended up having a chat to his tummy about life and death. Never a dull moment.
I have no idea whether I played this whole incident correctly or horribly. There isn’t a rule book for this stuff so I tend to fall back on my instinct which is to be as truthful as possible while remembering that I’m chatting to someone very small. These moments as a parent are brutal simply because they force you to acknowledge that you can’t protect your children from everything, no matter how hard you try.
So I suppose you do the only things you can – talk and listen.