When he was four, he wanted to know if my mother was dead. I told him she was.
When he was four and two months, he wanted to know what she died of. I told him that she got sick and her lungs stopped working.
When he was four and two months and one day, he wanted to know how old I had been. I told him two.
When he was five, he wanted to know about my father. I told him he lived far away. But then he wanted to know about my stepmother, and eventually, after the questions became more and more probing, I told him the truth. She wasn’t very nice to me.
“Why wasn’t she nice to you?”
“I guess she didn’t like me very much.”
“But why didn’t she like you very much?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know why someone wouldn’t like a child.”
He wants to know more about what she did, I think. He doesn’t have the words to ask because he doesn’t even know the word “abuse.” It is all so vague for him, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in that little head.
I sure as hell don’t want to tell him more than he’s asking. He’s not asking to know that she beat me. He shouldn’t even know that she hit me. He’ll have sixty or seventy years of his life to understand the specifics of what happened to me as a kid; right now, it’s not necessary for him to know I slept naked on the hallway floor and ate my own vomit.
But I also don’t want to tell him less than he’s asking. Kids left to figure shit out for themselves can imagine some pretty horrible stuff, although I guess he can’t imagine much that’s worse than what actually happened to me. So, I wait for the questions and field them as they come.
Except when I don’t know the answer.
Because there is one question I’ve struggled with for years. The same question that grown men ask me every single time they hear my story. The question Zachary asked me the other day.
“Why didn’t your father help you?”
Why didn’t my father help me? Why, indeed. There are a couple of ways to go about answering this one, but “because he’s a narcissistic asshole” doesn’t really answer the question. Plus, then I’d have to define narcissistic and asshole.
Instead, I went with, “I don’t really know. I think maybe he just didn’t care that much.”
This threw Zach for a loop. Having no experience with stepmothers, he can accept that some are bad. But he has experiences with fathers. In his experience, fathers care very much.
My husband thinks I answered wrong. And maybe I did. Unfortunately, my husband does not have any suggestions for better answers. I think that’s because there aren’t any better answers.
How do I answer a four-year-old who wants to know why the woman on the cover of Time magazine has her nose cut off? I mean, other than to wonder why the hell the grocery store put the magazine at precisely four-year-old height. How do I answer when my children want to know about war and genocide and mental illness and homelessness? I answer as honestly as I can, trying to help them understand there are injustices in the world that they can help to right.
But, when my almost-six-year-old wants to know why a father stands by and allows his children to brutalized, why my father did that, well, I just don’t know what to say.