“No, no, no. Please don’t step on the ants,” I beg.
My three year old son looks down at the sidewalk, eyeing the tiny creatures scurrying across the chalk drawings of rocket ships. “Why? I want to step on ants!” His voice is high, even for a toddler, giving an added air of innocence that sharply contrasts with what he is saying. “Why can’t I step on ants?” He raises one of his blue Crocs again, surveying the sidewalk. “It hurts them, honey. We don’t want to hurt them,” I respond, skirting the obvious truth that 36 pounds of toddler does more than simply hurt an ant.
I don’t want to tell him that he’s killing them; I only want him to feel remorseful enough to stop. Yet I know that my request is somewhat hypocritical: I’m serving chicken for dinner tonight, and I plan to knock down a wasp nest under our porch steps afterwards. His younger brother marches aimlessly around our front yard, yelling, “Tep ant! ‘Tep ant!” I realize I am thinking too much about this ant business. To my son, it is simply a game of whack-a-mole, of target practice. He does not yet know what death is.
We are in the hotel room, and my son sits on his grandmother’s lap, munching on sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons. I rush around the room with a towel wrapped around my head, packing the diaper bag with snacks and sunscreen, until I notice what they are watching. “Oh, Charlotte’s Web!” I sigh, joining the pair on the white comforter. “I loved that book when I was a kid,” I tell my son, who, as usual, is paying no attention to me. My husband comes to my side, and we reminisce about “some pig,” and tell him that we will read the book to him when he is old enough.
Later that night in a busy restaurant, he turns to me, his eyes tired from the day of festivities. “I don’t want you to die, Mama,” his little voice squeaks, “When are you going to die?”
I take him outside and we walk up and down the sidewalk, waiting for our food to arrive. I assure him that I am not like a spider, dying after she lays her eggs. I will be with him for a very long time.
I hear the words coming out of my mouth, and I wonder if they are true. “But when will you die, Mama?” he presses, laying his head down on my chest as we sit on the wooden bench, listening to the dishes clinking along to the music coming from the café next door. He will not leave the question alone. He is tired, too tired, and his body only has enough energy to fixate on my mortality. I hear the crunch of metal as two cars collide, and see my head bleeding onto the steering wheel. I see my body in a hospital bed, head shaved, color drained, with IVs coming out of my arm. “Not for a very long time,” I tell him again.
It continues to weigh heavily on him. Weeks later, my husband pulls pajamas covered in dinosaur bones down over his head. I am changing his brother when he comes over and leans against my leg, turning his face up at me. “But when you die, who will be my family?”
I tell him he has plenty of family: grandparents, a brother, aunts and uncles and cousins. That is not what he wants to know. “But who will be my parents?” he asks again. I pull him on to my lap, and whisper, “Oh honey, we will always be your parents.” I do not disclose the details of our last will and testament with him. Instead we rock back and forth in the wooden rocking chair, the same one his grandmother rocked his father in.
The next morning he screams and calls for me as a technician draws blood from his small arms. An hour later, he proudly shows his green and purple band aids to the other children at the playground, and my husband picks up the prescribed epi pens on the way home. My son knows which foods he cannot eat, the ones that will make him very, very sick. He does not know what I mean when I say very, very sick.
We drive away from the playground, and I turn up the radio, hoping the dulcet tones of NPR will drown out the whines of tired and hungry toddlers. “Authorities are continuing their investigation into the death of a three year old girl in eastern…” the silken voice tells me. I turn the radio back down.
I answer his questions carefully. My answers are honest, but edited as not to unduly burden the child. He knows that I am holding back from him, but he does not know what it is that I won’t share. Death he can begin to comprehend, but the ramifications and uncertainty that shroud it he cannot.
“Snow!” my youngest yells, staring out the window to our sunny yard. “Snow! Snow! Snow!” I look. A sudden windstorm has blown fluff from our neighbor’s cottonwood tree into our yard, where it has mixed with the falling white petals of chokecherry flowers. The trees covered in delicate blooms just this morning are now bare except for their leaves. It is far from the death that autumn will bring, but the world has nevertheless become slightly less beautiful. In the upcoming season, the fruit that the fallen petals have made way for will emerge.
Our fears continue to arise and cross paths before wandering back into the recesses of our minds. During these conversations, we stare at each other, both trying to glimpse the future in the other’s eyes and words.
It is another sunny afternoon and we head outdoors to play. I watch him step carefully around the ants as he walks down the stairs.