Mommy, Do Children Die?
A heart-to-heart talk with my young daughter.
We'd been driving around for an hour. It was already dark, almost suppertime. Three shoe stores later and my six year old daughter still hadn't found boots she liked. Our search for the perfect boots would just have to wait until next weekend.
I hesitated to tell her. She had been edgy and anxious all afternoon. “We can't get to another store tonight,” I said carefully.
Her reaction surprised me. She kicked the back of the driver's seat in anger, something she'd never done before. “I need boots!” she shouted, desperately.
I glanced in the rear view mirror. Her hands were balled up in fists. Her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
We merged onto the highway and drove in silence. “Something happen in school today?” I finally asked.
She sniffled. A quick glance back and I could see angry tears in her eyes. I rotated my shoulder and reached for her hand. But she didn't reach back like she normally would have. So I grabbed a piece of her foot and tried to rub her ankle.
“There's a girl who's sick,” she said at last. “Really sick, like, not the kind of sick when you get better.”
“In your school?”
“No, somewhere else. And all she wants is lots and lots of letters. The whole class is writing to her. It's a project.”
We neared our exit but I kept driving. The darkness around us provided privacy we might not have at home. She was quiet for a long time. Then she said, in a small voice, “You told me kids don't die.”
My stomach instantly twisted and bore a hollow in my chest.
That summer, we'd visited the Barnes Museum in Connecticut, a house built in the 1830's with all clothes, furnishing and housewares preserved for the viewing public. The guide mentioned that one of the Barnes children had died quite young. This alarmed my kids. In a moment of parental anxiety, I told them that before vaccines and clean water, children might have died, but that children don't die anymore. I had qualified my statement to some degree – saying “seldom” or “almost never” - but she hadn't remembered it that way.
“I did say that,” I admitted.
My daughter was quiet. “Do children die?” she whispered
She was angry – at me, the situation, the world, at our apparent helplessness.
She was angry – at me, the situation, the world, at our apparent helplessness. Unable to articulate her overwhelming sense of injustice, she clammed up, stuffing all that grief and anger inside. Isolated in her own sadness, she finally exploded by kicking my seat.
Her experience is relatable. We witness events which seem unjust and unfair, and feel helpless and scared. In our attempts to protect ourselves, we inadvertently end up feeling utterly alone.
There is a mystical idea that God intentionally left the world unfinished to give us the opportunity to participate in perfecting it. Through these opportunities to perfect the world, we are afforded insight into each other’s grief and traumas, triumphs and strengths. Through the process we can attain greater compassion and wisdom that allows us to find deeper, more meaningful ways to connect with each other, and to God.
Perhaps this is why we use the Hebrew term tzedekah derived from the word “justice” for charity, Helping each other not only preserves justice in the world, it preserves our own sense that the world is just. And while some moments, some events, may be beyond our comprehension, nothing is beyond God. We might not always understand why something has come to pass. But in helping each other, by responding in a just and merciful manner, God gives us the opportunity to feel an intrinsic sense of justice in this world.
When we reach out to each other in times of need, we are also reaching out to God. And God responds by filling us with His presence, with the knowledge that no matter how hard or sad a moment might be, nothing is beyond the reach of His infinite Justice, Compassion and Mercy.
The roads were dark and still and we approached our street. “What did you write in your letter?” I asked.
I heard her sniff. “I told her how we got a cat. And I asked her if she had a cat.”
“That sounds like a very friendly thing to ask,” I said quietly. “I bet your letter is going to make that girl feel really good.”
I heard the rustle of her coat as she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Yeah,” she agreed. Then she sighed, softly, relieved.
I reached back to hold her hand, and this time she took it. She rested her forehead on the back of the driver's seat. Her hair floated in the staticy dark and tickled the back of my neck.
She let go of my hand when we turned into our driveway and I could hear the squeak of her finger drawing pictures on the car window. Hearts and smiles, visible against the dark.