This weekend I was able to spend some good quality time with my niece, Bella.
Bella is three and a half years old, and firmly entrenched in the ‘why’ stage of life. Why is the water too hot to touch? Why is the door closed? Why is mud muddy? Why is Grandma sitting in that chair? Why isn’t Grandma sitting in that chair?
Of course, being her loving extended family, my folks and I tried to answer each question simply and fully so that she might grow up to be some kind of genius. This lead to our conversation about death.
During one of our walks, we encountered a dead dove lying in a pool of scattered feathers. Bella, clinging to my hand, watched it carefully and talked about germs and bugs and gave me a comprehensive list of the things that birds like to eat. I thought that the matter was settled, until the next morning.
Bella and I had taken a trip down to my parents basement where she was busily going through dusty boxes, looking for treasure. Suddenly she looked up at me and said, in her serious little voice, “Before I went on a walk and there was a dead bird.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember that.”
“It was dead from germs,” she went on, “and bugs had ated its feathers and we couldn’t touch the feathers because because because the bugs had eated them.”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to touch buggy feathers,” I told her, going through a pile of old books. “Yuck-ee.”
“Why?” Bella asked.
“Why is it yucky?”
“Because those bugs have germs.”
“Because,” I said, gearing up for the ‘why’ marathon, “there were germs on the bird.”
“Why?” She was dancing in a little circle, stomping in her sandals while she thought.
“Because germs like to stay on dead things.”
“Because when things die, they become good for germs to eat.”
“The germs eat it?”
“Some of it, yeah. Only after it died.”
“Him was dead because he didn’t wash his hands,” Bella said after a moment. She stuck her hands over her hand and waggled them in the air. “Him was a bad bird.”
“Well,” I said carefully, “maybe. Sometimes good things die too.”
I took a deep breath. This was really more ‘Mom’ territory, but being told ‘go ask your mother’ is never a satisfying answer for any kid’.
“Because,” I said slowly, “everything has to die sometime. It’s a part of being alive, sort of like how a book ends. Good things die and bad things die, and that’s okay.”
Bella had become very still. She was watching me and sucking on her lower lip, her eyebrows furrowed together and her hands clasped over her head.
“Do you understand that?” I asked. Bella looked up at the ceiling and down at her shoes.
“Um,” she said. “I have to poop.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and we went upstairs.