There are questions we are ready for and questions we can never be ready for.
“How will the baby come out of your belly?” he asked.
This one, I was prepared for. “I’ll go to the hospital and Dr. Chen will help the baby come out.”
Unfortunately, this opened the door for a follow-up question a few days later. “But, Mommy. How will the doctor get the baby out?”
OK, so not exactly a question I wanted to answer, but I am fortunate. I could answer honestly without having to explain the details of female plumbing. I showed him my c-section scar and explained they would help the baby come through there. Pitch, swing, hit.
Then, there are the questions about the war. “Why is he angry?” my going-on-four-year-old asks of the President. It is harder to answer this one, as I am not sure anyone really knows. But, it is impersonal, and so the answer comes slowly but clearly.
In the airport, on the way to visit his grandparents, Zachary asks, “Where are your grandparents?”
He asks about death a lot. Remembering his lessons from the church school in London, he believes people can rise again after they have died, which gets a little sticky as we try to respect another religion without fostering beliefs we do not hold. Much as I hate to feed his curiosity about death, I answer honestly. I tell him my grandparents died, and when he asks why, I explain they were very old.
A whole summer before he turns four, and I am getting really good at the four-year-old questions. I might even be called a master of being clear and honest while giving just enough information. I even handled the recent, “How does the baby get in your belly?” with grace and sensitivity, giving some bullshit about mommies and daddies loving each other very much.
And, then it came. Yesterday, we were in the living room. Benjamin was napping, and Zachary was quietly playing while I tried to nap. A wrong number woke me up, and he came over to cuddle.
“You look so much like your Daddy,” I mused, stating an obvious fact if ever there was one.
“And who do you look like?” he asked.
Well, the honest answer, the only honest answer, is that I look like my mother, a stronger resemblance than even his to his father. And, so, I took a breath. “I look like my Mommy.” I prepared for questions about where she is and why he has never seen her.
He seemed to know already. “Is she dead?”
“Yes, she is, baby.”
“Why is she dead?” Zachary asked.
“Well, honey, she got very sick and so she died.”
His next question was immediate. “Why didn’t you take her to the doctor?” Doctors, he knows, make people better.
“I was very little. I was as young as Benjamin,” I told him, not mentioning that I was almost Benjamin’s age, to the day, when my mother died.
“Is your Daddy dead?” he asked, rather relentlessly.
“No, he’s not.”
“Why didn’t he take her to the doctor?”
“He did, honey, but she was very sick. The doctors couldn’t make her better. And so she died.”
“How was she sick?”
Good God, child, leave a few questions for next week. “Well, take a deep breath. You see how the air goes in? It goes into your lungs. Well, her lungs were very sick, so she died.”
He thought for a moment, allowing me to do the same. Then, “I don’t understand the process of death,” he said. “How you die and then rise again.” (And, yes, these were his exact words.)
So, I tried again to explain that people don’t rise again after dying, although some people do believe Jesus did. He seemed to accept my answer, and I preempted the worries I knew would follow by explaining that I eat healthy foods and exercise because I want to live a long time to be with him.
But the worries, I think they came anyway, because 3:30 AM found me standing on his bunk bed ladder, keeping one hand on him as he fell back asleep after an hour of anxious wakefulness. Somehow, I think neither of us was ever going to be ready for that conversation, for the questions we both knew needed to be answered.