The Lying Game

A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)

The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.

And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleep on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.

But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.

Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.

But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.

I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”

I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.

For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?

The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.

That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.

tooth fairy

Eight Years On

I grew up with a father who loved me more than any single thing in his life. He put me first, he loved me fiercely, and he would have done anything in the world for me. Eight years ago this week he died, and as most of you who read my blog know, it is a loss which I carry with me daily. It hits me unexpectedly, it catches me unawares, and yet sometimes it also arrives with a punctuality I almost admire; on birthdays, on anniversaries, at moments when I know he would do anything to be there. It’s a dart through my heart and yet I feel it in my throat. choking me, blurring my voice with tears until all I have are my fingers to write, or the very emotion of it will drown me entirely.

Like I said, none of this is news to those of you who read my blog. And tonight is a dark night with my grief. But he brought so much light into my life, so much kindness and joy, and that should be remembered as well. So this year, I’m going to try to push aside the crushing weight of the loneliness, and blink through the stinging ferocity of my tears, to tell you eight things about my daddy, eight little pieces of light which I’m remembering this week, on the eighth anniversary of his death.

1. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, so I have no memories of them under the same roof. My main memories of my dad as a child are ‘weekend’ memories. Walking the journey from my house to his together on a Saturday morning, playing the number plate game and 20 questions. Being tucked in a bed that was never quite ‘my bed’ and playing silly games like a version of hide and seek where we hit each other over the head with a long green polystyrene tube when we found one another. As I got older, he played board games and card games with me tirelessly, and it’s only now when I think about how exhausting it is playing with my own son, that I think about how he never suggested he needed a rest.

2. As I got older, and craved more independence, he used lifts as a way to spend time with me. In high school, he offered to drive from Hendon to Mill Hill to pick me up every afternoon after school, driving me to Wembley and then himself back to Hendon. It must have been a nearly two hour round trip, to spend 15 minutes hearing about my day. What naivety I had, the days I turned him down so that boyfriends I barely remember could pick me up, or so as not to miss out on the bus gossip. I must have thought that time would be endless for us.

3. The year before he died, I was 18, and we talked more deeply than we had the whole of my life. He told me the reasons why he made aliyah to Israel, and how frightened the decision made him at the time. How happy he was there, how much he felt like he belonged. How he carried around in his wallet a dollar from the first pay cheque he made in Israel, a dollar I still have to this day. He gave me Zionism as a gift, packaged up with happy stories as wrapping paper and fierce belief as a ribbon around it, and told me how important it was that we had a homeland. He taught me with his actions that even though he had been forced to return to England, we should never stop striving to be there.

4. He told ‘Dad jokes’ more often than anyone I’ve ever known. Tell him something was cool? The reply was inevitably ‘has it been in the fridge?’ He would ask what my hairstyle was called, only to hear me say ” a bun” so he could reply it looked “more like a doughnut.” If I made similarly terrible puns in response, his answer would be an expression I to this day have never heard anyone else use, the weird sounding, archaic, yet grammatically correct, “very comedical”.

5. His best friend was my mother. Despite the divorce, despite a fierce custody battle, and years of ups and downs, the very last day of his life he spent on an outing with my mum. They were closer than many married couples, and I put much of my own happy marriage down to the kindness of only a handful of unhappy memories of the two of them together. There were times they understood each other better than anyone in the world, and times where they were making the effort just for me, but I never once in my life felt put in the middle by him.

6. He had magic. Instead of a toy kitchen or a workbench, we had a puppet show and hundreds of card tricks. He made up songs and remembered the nonsensical lyrics long after he remembered why we made them up to begin with. He used to write me birthday cards from all the stuffed animals I had. Not just when I was little, I still have the one for my 19th birthday, four days before he died, signed by Tom Teddy and Herbert the Hedgehog.

7. My son R reminds me so much of my dad. Whether it’s his bright blue eyes, so different from our green ones, his kindness and interest in animals, when we have little interest, or the uncanny way in which R reaches straight for a map when we arrive somewhere and peruses it throughout the afternoon, with the exact same studious expression that my father did.

8. I tell him about his Zeida in little snippets, how he sneezed so loudly that strangers often screamed, how he gave me my first bike and ran alongside me while I practiced, how he made me spaghetti every Tuesday evening, and let me have as much ketchup as I wanted on top.

I tell him how much his Zeida loved me, and how much he would have loved him too-had he been given the chance. And then I tell R not to worry, that I have enough love to give him for the both of us.

Great Loss

72 years ago, a woman got married. She stood up in front of her family and her friends, and was sworn to a man for ever and ever. A ring, simple, plain, was placed on her finger. And she never took it off.

The marriage lasted less than a year. The woman became a mother, although the man left before he had the chance to be called father. This mother, raised her son by herself, and wore her ring to protect her from the cold stare of social stigma, and perhaps, in some small way to make her feel less alone when she remembered how she had lost the man she’d thought she’d have forever.

The child grew up, and grew used to the ring on his mothers finger. Perhaps took it as a small sign of her vulnerability in a world she faced alone. Bringing up a son was no easy job, especially without a partner to lean on.

Eventually, the child became a man, and got married too. He placed a ring on a lady’s finger, but was soon alone again. A second, a third time he tried to make those vows. But it was not to be, and he was soon alone again, this time forever. But he had not left before he had the chance to be called father. And his child, his daughter, they had each other. And he loved her more than he ever learned to love any other in the world.

The woman, now a Grandmother, looked on at her son, holding her granddaughter, and knew that the ring on her finger had not been for nothing, it had been for everything.

12 years later, the grandmother died, and the father, now as good as an orphan, only had his daughter in the world. He said goodbye to his mother, and took the ring off her finger, placing it onto his own. He wore it forever, perhaps as a way to feel less alone when he remembered the woman who had faced the worst of the world for him.

And the father and his daughter had each other. And the daughter, she grew used to the ring on her fathers finger, and took it as a sign of strength that he made his own way in the world without family to guide him. Bringing up a daughter was no easy job. Especially without a marriage to lean on.

Six short years later, the man was taken from this world, and was lost to his daughter forever. She said goodbye to her father, and took the ring off his finger, placing it onto her own. She wore the ring every day, perhaps as a way to remember the man who loved her most of all, to feel less alone when she couldn’t feel him watching over her or when she realised that she’d lost the man she thought she’d have forever.

And the daughter grew up, and on her own wedding day she threaded the ring onto a chain, and placed it as a necklace over her heart, and danced at her wedding with over 65 years of history, and failed marriages, and lost love around her neck. Once the day was over, the ring was moved from chain back to finger, and there it remained. She wore it every day, while she became a mother to a child whose father never strayed more than a few hours from home and his family, while she thanked God for her marriage and her family and her life, and most of all for the chance to wear that ring on behalf of both her father and grandmother, with true happiness rather than loss.

****

I wish I could say the ring remained there forever, but tonight, I lost my grandmothers wedding ring. People who know me would tell you that I’m not very materialistic, and I don’t care much for sentimentality over objects. I own almost nothing of my late fathers, and I neither expect nor want my children to hoard my possessions zealously after I pass away.

But this ring.

This ring is my family history, and so much more besides.

The night I lost my grandmother, I cried like a child because I was a child. I hadn’t experienced the finality of death in any real way, and I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t going to be there the next morning.

The night I lost my father, I cried like a child because I was his child. I didn’t, and often still don’t know how to make my way in this world without his voice at the other end of the phone or his unwavering love to guide me.

Tonight, I am crying like a child for a third time. It’s illogical, and unresolvable, but without this object, this piece of metal, I feel like the child all over again. Lost without a talisman to protect me. Without the very last tangible link to my departed family, I feel alone.