I thought of this again yesterday after one of “those” conversations with my seven-year-old daughter, Toots…
First she asks how Johnny Appleseed died, then Christopher Columbus. Eager to encourage her learning, even if it is morbid, we look up the details. Appleseed gave in to pneumonia at age 72; Columbus suffered a heart attack at 55. She’s not satisfied. What is pneumonia, she inquires. How does a heart ‘attack’ you?
We answer best we can, without too many details. Although it’s not uncommon for kids to ask about death, Toots seems more obsessed than most and right or wrong, I don’t want to encourage it too much. After all, she’s my clone and I’d rather she be unhaunted by the idea of dying. She’s just like you were, my dad says smugly. Now you know what it was like. Vague comfort that, because you’d think I’d know how to handle her better, but I flail and bluster. I worry I’ll screw her up. After all, family legend has me as a neurotic nutcase and I still wear that label. I’d rather she not think of herself that way.
But still. Oh my dear Toots. What do I do? Wonderfully, you are curious about everything, eminently verbal, deliciously left of center, and I wonder if I gave you my overthinking genes. Of course, I’ll hear that it’s OK, yet I know all too well how tangled this mindset can be and how it can exhaust you and keep you from life. Also, it can be wonderfully invigorating and full of imagination. Extremes. I just want to keep you off the deep end.
Daddy? She asks. Do you have to go to work today? He answers yes, but he’d much rather stay home. You can kill yourself, she suggests. Then you don’t have to work. The logic is there, sure, but…
My eye hurts and seems infected. The irritation comes and goes, so I put off visiting the doctor. Yet I lie awake at night wondering if I have a systemic infection that’s traveled to my orbital bone, will soon reach my bloodstream, killing me from sepsis. But I don’t say this out loud. I keep it to myself and hope that Toots hasn’t picked up this mind disease through telepathic genetics. Some thin strand that’s transmitted my worry DNA right to her cerebral cortex.
I stare at her at night. Stroke her hair, chuff her chin, kiss her milk cheeks. So many nights she tells me she has nightmares and while they seem relievedly comical as she recounts them, I ask myself why so many nightmares?
When Toots was three, I told her I liked spooky things. I’d noted her fondness for Scooby Doo and mysteries and the unexplained, and in an attempt to bond, I shared my love of the scary. After that, every library visit found her selecting Halloween books and begging for spooky stories. Then we visited Disneyland and the Haunted Mansion topped the list of must-sees. I relented and we waited in line, but as the doors closed behind us and the floor dropped, she panicked. A few minutes later, the ride broke and we sat in a black carriage for 20 minutes while ghosts projected themselves on the walls.
She hasn’t asked for a Halloween book since.
Why did I tell her I liked spooky things?
Did I set something in motion in her head?
I think about these things in between worrying about my eye.
A few weeks ago, Toots began to say, “I’m going to kill myself.” She used it as a joke, a comic melodrama, but I reacted violently. STOP IT, I mouthed, especially after she said it to the grocery checkout girl. But why mama? I told her suicide wasn’t something to make a joke and she persisted. In a fit of not mincing words, I then told her that my good friend’s sister committed suicide and it wasn’t a joke. Do you see? It’s not funny. Of course, she needed more. How? Coronado Bridge. Did it hurt? It happened so fast. Why? I don’t know.
She’s only 5, but she asked all the same questions I did. Maybe she’s picturing it in her mind. Like me.
I know. I know. This isn’t necessarily something to worry about. She’s just a kid. She is imaginative, artistic, creative, curious. I have the same morbidly inquisitive mind and I’m OK. In fact, maybe this mind will actually finish its morbidly creative book one day.
It’s just that I see so much of me in her and I know firsthand those extremes. She’s so emotional, she’s ruled by feelings, the imagination. This can be good, dammit, I know that. But if not properly channeled, it’s not so good, and dammit, I know that too.
When I was in the 7th grade, I made my dad take me to an eighth grader’s funeral. She’d had leukemia, her name was Peggy Burns, I didn’t know her. But I needed to see her. She wore white, I think it was her confirmation dress, there were ruffles around her neck. Her hair was dirty blonde, short, fluffy. She had white skin with red on her lips and cheeks.
I see the lacquered casket, the smelly flowers, the throngs of people.
My dad took me. He knew I didn’t know her, but he also knew I needed to see her.
He remained uncharacteristically silent that night.
Did he worry about me?
If I asked, he’d make a joke, but I think maybe a little.
Still here I am. Forty years old. Not eating my cat. A family. Two beautiful girls.
It’s a good life.
She’ll be more than OK.
She may even finish that book.