Ethan and the Question of Death
When the fifth fish died in as many months, my husband decided to decommission the tank. He and our four-year-old son carefully removed the water, stones, and plants, but because there was nowhere to store the tank in our small New York City apartment, it remained in its spot next to the television, an unintentional memorial. Ethan had always been sad when the fish died, but moved past it with the introduction of a new one, a flash of pink or gold, seemingly swishing away the memory of the small, round bodies floating on top of the water. But the empty tank seems to haunt him.
“I miss my fish,” he says, pressing his fingers to the glass. “Do you really think they’re on Fish Island?”
Fish Island is where fish go when they’re flushed down the toilet, a place where they can be happy, swimming forever in a perfect sea. As soon as I invented Fish Island I suspected it was a bad idea, but more than one bad idea has been born in the face of a sobbing child. Now that he’s asking me directly, I’m not sure how to respond. It’s our parenting policy not to lie to make things easier, to say we’re out of cookies as opposed to you can’t have one, but death is different.
“Do they know I miss them?” he asks. “Do they know I love them?”
“I’m sure they do,” I say, “as much as they did when they were alive, anyway.” Closer, an almost truth.
“I wish I could tell them,” he says, curling into my body, like a snail into a new shell.
“Maybe we can write them a letter,” I suggest.
“How would they get it?” he asks, brightening a little, pulling away to glance up at me.
“We can write it on toilet paper,” I say, impressed at my own stroke of genius. “Then we’ll flush it down the toilet to them.”
“Will they be able to read it?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “But we can try our best.”
We pull out a long stretch of toilet paper and grab a maroon marker. I ask him what he wants it to say and after some thought we write: Dear Fish, Happy Birthday, we miss you. I wish you would come back. I hope you still love us even though you are not alive. Love, Ethan.
It’s harder to write on toilet paper than I expected. My writing looks jagged and unformed, a cartoon version of a ransom note. But we solemnly carry it into the bathroom and silently drop it in the bowl. Ethan presses the flush button with all of his newly four-year-old strength. And then things go horribly wrong. He has pushed the low-flush button on our conservation-savvy toilet, which sends a sad spiral of water through the bowl but does nothing to move our toilet paper missive down the drain. Instead, the marker starts to dissolve, releasing a slow stream of red dye, snaking through the bowl.
“Oh no!” Ethan cries. “It’s not working, Mommy, it’s not working. The fish won’t get our letter.”
“It will work; it will,” I say, frantically pushing the button again.
Ethan starts to cry—in the way only kids and drunk people can—tears exploding out of the corners of his eyes. Panicked, I slam the lid shut before he can see the entire message has washed away.
“Did it go? Did it go?” he asks me, practically hyperventilating.
“We have to count to 30,” I say, and he shouts out random numbers—1, 2, 14, 16.99! I try to keep pace. Right before 30, I surreptitiously press the button and hear the glorious sound of water sucking out of the bowl. I slowly lift the lid and the tension around my spine releases when I find the bowl empty. I wave my hands saying, “It went down. It went down.”
Ethan finally smiles. “I really hope they get it,” he says.
“Me too,” I tell him.
A few days later, I’m in the kitchen making lunch while Ethan and his younger sister, Paige, are in the living room playing with LEGO bricks. I’m carefully cutting grapes in half when Ethan cries out, “Mommy, come quick, come quick!”
I hurry into the other room and see Ethan staring at the television. On the screen a woman is collapsed over a hospital bed, sobbing into the lifeless form of a man. I immediately try to change the channel but Ethan cries out, “Leave it! I want to see.”
“No,” I say. “It’s a grown-up show. It’s not for kids.”
“But I need to. Why is that woman so sad? Why did Leo have to die?” I gather that Leo is the man on the television; I don’t know who he is or why he had to die, but I use my best detective skills.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe he was really sick.”
“Does everyone die, Mommy?”
Please don’t ask me this. Please don’t make me do this. “Yes, honey,” I say.
My abdomen sucks into a familiar knot as my shoulders cave into themselves. I don’t know how to have a normal conversation about death, let alone with my four-year-old. Overall, I consider myself a capable parent, but I’m not to be trusted with this.
“So I’m going to die?” Ethan looks up at me with his soft pale face—the same face that believes kisses make scrapes less painful and hugs erase cruel words.
No, not you, you’re never going to die. “Not for a long, long time, honey.”
“Can you make it so I don’t die? I really don’t want to die.”
Yes, of course I can. That’s what mommies do. We make the world magic. I will make you live a million thousand years, every one of them happy. “I will do everything in my power,” I say, crouching down to hold his face between my palms. “I will do everything I can.”
He does not believe my promise. I try to distract him with an episode of Paw Patrol, chocolate milk, and a cardboard robot, but all morning he keeps on. “Mommy, I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die.”
Paige is distressed by his distress and keeps asking why he’s sad. I tell her he’s worried about something and maybe he just needs a hug. She walks over and says, “I love you, Ethan,” and sits next to him on the floor, as if in solidarity.
That night I have a class. My husband, Doug, and I pass each other at the door, I give him a rushed run-down on who has eaten, the status of medicine and diapers, and run out the door. It does not occur to me to mention the “Leo incident.” During the class break, I pick up my phone to find several texts from Doug, all some version of: Ethan is crying and shaking and trying to get me to promise to stop him from dying. I finally got him to sleep but WTF? Who’s Leo?
When I get home at 10:30, Doug wants to talk. I’m tired, but more than that, I can’t talk about death at night, when the dark and lack of distractions create space for panic, when the most banal things trigger my fears. Washing my face is one of them. I will splash water on my skin and think, This is so simple and ordinary but I love it. The feel of the silky soap beneath my fingertips, the warm water as it clings to the curve of my eyelashes. I will catch my reflection in the mirror and think, I will wash my face thousands of times and then someday I will die and I’ll never wash it again.
“Who’s Leo?” Doug asks, and I try to tell him about the television.
“Why was it even on?” he asks, as if that was the point. He says we need a united front and wants to research what experts advise on talking to kids about death. I suggest we need something more immediate, but when pressed, I have no suggestions.
“Maybe we can just tell him it’s part of the cycle of life,” he offers.
“No,” I say too loudly for a non-fight, “no fucking cycle of life.”
“What’s wrong with the cycle of life?”
“He’s four,” I say. “He’s not asking for a science lesson; he’s asking for comfort. There’s no comfort in knowing your body will become part of a tree.”
“How do you know he won’t find comfort in that?” he asks. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Because I’m not a moron! I want to scream, but of course that’s not fair. I have lived so long with my anxiety that I forget that it’s not normal to freeze in the middle of what you’re doing and cry no, no, no, no, no just because the thought of your death pops into your head. My earliest memory is of having a panic attack about death, rocking myself in a tight little ball as I realized that at some point I would cease to exist and I was powerless to stop it.
“So, what do you want to do?” Doug asks.
What I want to do is straight-up lie. I want to tell Ethan he will live forever. I want to tell him that on the off-off-chance he does happen to die, there’s a beautiful place called Heaven where people live for eternity. And yes, it’s just exactly like here, and yes, of course I’ll be there too, with Daddy and Paige and grandma and grandpa, and yes, absolutely his best friend Hudson will be there, too.
“You can’t do that,” Doug says. “You don’t believe in an afterlife, do you?”
I don’t. He knows I don’t. But I can’t even say that out loud, especially not at night when the dark breathes of endings.
“So, how can you honestly tell him there is one?” he asks.
Because I still want to believe. Because it hasn’t been proven otherwise. Because I don’t want him to live with this fear. Because it’s what I wished my mother had told me.
One night when I was five or six, I was in the room I shared with my sister, frozen in bed. I desperately wanted to go to sleep but I couldn’t stop thinking about dying, the world going on and on without me. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I got up and went into my mother’s room, hauling myself up into my parents’ large, brass bed.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she asked as I scooted closer. “Can’t sleep?”
“I’m scared to die,” I said. “I don’t want to die.”
“What scares you?” she asked.
“The nothing, that I will be nothing.”
“Do you remember what it was like before you were born?” she asked, turning to face me, her thick black hair swinging like a raven’s wing.
“No,” I said, fully focused, waiting for her to tell me what it was like; this was something new to me that there was a world before I was born. And if there was a world there, there might be one after.
“And did it bother you?” she asked, still soft and quiet. I shook my head.
“Well that’s what it will be like after you die,” she said, smiling as if pleased she’d managed to tie this up in such a tidy little package. “It won’t bother you then, either.”
I just stared at her. How did she not understand that was exactly what bothered me?
Doug and I go to bed without coming to a resolution about what to tell Ethan. Ethan still sleeps between us, because he “never ever wants to be alone, especially not at night,” and we don’t have the heart to force the issue. Besides, this time is fleeting. I will miss the way his small, warm body rolls over and seeks me out in the middle of the night, will miss being able to reach over and lay my hands on his ribcage to make sure he’s breathing. Now, he’s fast asleep. I kiss him on his cheek and whisper in his ear, “You have a magic ice cream cone. It’s covered in magical sprinkles and each one can grant a wish.”
Doug peeks over to look at me and I shrug. “I like the idea that I can give him wonderful dreams,” I murmur. “I don’t know if anything gets through, but it makes me happy to think that it does.”
Doug gets out of bed and walks over to my side and leans down to kiss me. I try not to cry.
The next morning, Ethan wakes up happy. Maybe we’re out of the woods. On the walk to the playground, Ethan grabs Paige’s hand. I smile as their soft white arms reach out for each other. He’s trying to show her how to run. At two, she’s still toddler-wobbly, but Ethan is impressed. “She’s running, she’s running! You can do it, Paige!”
They laugh and squeal down the block until suddenly Ethan comes to an abrupt stop, turns to face me. “So if everyone dies,” he says, “then Paige will die too?”
How are you four? Did I give this to you? Is it possible for fear of death to be passed on in DNA? And if I gave it to you, is it mine to take away?
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, Paige will die too. But not for a long, long time.”
Paige looks up at me concerned and I think Oh no, not you too. Though she’s only two, she seemed to have been born understanding language, and I wouldn’t put it past her to be taking this all in.
“Can you please make it so we don’t?” Ethan asks.
Why didn’t Doug and I come up with a plan? I have to say something. Damn united front. No afterlife, no cycle of life, what’s left? What’s between science and faith? I make a blind stab. “Ethan, I can’t, but maybe you can. Maybe you can grow up and invent something to make it so people won’t die. Do you think you could do that?”
He nods even as my mind races with, But what would that do to over-population? The planet? Real estate in New York? But I don’t care, because for the moment he’s contemplating his invention; he’s playing with hope. He has already dreamed up a gun that turns bad guys good when you shoot them; surely this is possible, too. Ethan weaves his hand back into Paige’s small fingers. Here is the church, here is the steeple. I might not be able to hand him Jesus, God or Heaven, but I will fight to give him belief of some sort. As a child, I always wished my parents had given me faith. My mom, who had grown up in the church, turned away before my siblings and I were born. We’d go to church with our grandparents and sit in the empty pews as everyone went up for communion, where I would pray to Jesus, whispering, I’m so sorry I don’t believe in you, but I want to. Could you maybe make me believe? But the belief didn’t come and I resented my mom for having had the choice to stop believing, when I’d never been able to start.
That night Doug and I sit on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep. His thigh is touching mine. It feels nice; we don’t have much time to touch anymore.
“I’ve done some research,” Doug says. “About what people should say.”
“I’ve done some thinking,” I say. “About what I want to do.”
Research apparently says we should be concrete, be casual but don’t hide your emotions, and tell the truth—not necessarily that our bodies will rot and decompose and become food for worms, but that we don’t know. There are books to read about leaves that can’t hang on, and grandparents who are held precious in our memories, and strings that mystically connect us all. But research does not feel right to me.
“What feels right?” Doug says.
I try to explain my thoughts about the thin line between truth and lies, between creating belief and facing the supposed truth. Every December, we wrap and put presents under the tree from Santa, at Easter we pretend there’s a giant bunny who deposits baskets of goodies at our children’s feet while they sleep, not to mention a fairy that for some odd reason collects dead teeth, and leaves money tucked under pillows. I know that these figures don’t exist, but I’m encouraged to pretend. And to what end? The accumulation of gifts? A moment of magic? So why can’t we give our kids something to believe in, even if we’re not sure? Would my life have been different if when I’d crawled into my mother’s bed, she’d told me that it was possible that things didn’t end? That there was hope that the girl I was could exist into perpetuity?
When I was eight, I had already stopped believing in Santa, but had a dream that Rudolph the Reindeer had taken me on a flight to the top of the Gateway Arch where we peered out at the sparkling lights of the city. The dream was so real that I was convinced it had somehow happened.
“I think it was real,” I’d told my mom.
“Who knows?” she said. “The world is filled with magic.”
There have been other small moments in life that have, at least momentarily, convinced me that there has to be something more out there, so why can’t I hang my hat on that? In the end, isn’t there more chance that God exists than Santa?
Doug is not convinced. My diatribe seems more likely to inspire him to abolish Santa than institute religion.
“But I’m not advocating religion,” I say. “I’m advocating possibility. I’m not saying I want to tell him there’s absolutely a God and Heaven, I just want to offer it up as a maybe.”
“But ‘maybe’ doesn’t comfort you, does it?” he says.
“Can I just try?” I ask. “And you can talk about the circle of life and we’ll see what hits.”
“Okay,” Doug says, “Okay.”
Ethan and I are sitting on the living room floor. Paige is napping. We’re playing Sum Swamp, a board game that involves adding and subtracting numbers. He rolls a five and a four. I hold up my fingers and he taps my fingertips as he says the numbers out loud. He gets to eight and stops. “So if daddy’s mommy is died, where is she?”
What does this have to do with addition? How are we back to this so soon? I’m not prepared but here’s my chance. I take a deep breath. “I don’t know,” I say. “Some people think there’s a place we go after we die, where you get to keep on living but probably in a different way.”
“It’s like New York City?” he asks, looking at me.
“I don’t think so,” I say, “but nobody knows.”
“Well, I hope it’s like here.”
“Maybe here with a huge backyard,” I say and he nods and looks back at my fingers.
“I forgot what number I was on.”
“It’s okay,” I say, leaning forward to kiss his forehead. “We can start again.”
Maybe this it. Maybe we can both start again. I don’t know that I’ll ever shake my own fear but I’d like to give Ethan enough faith that at night he might dream of a land where sprinkles are wishes, where fish swim up to a mailbox on Fish Island to joyfully read a letter from the little boy who loved them, and where Paige, Doug, and I will someday reunite, along with all of his friends and family and even soap opera Leo, who is healed, and whole, and laughing.
* Names have been changed.
10 replies on “Ethan and the Question of Death”
This is beautifully written. An article too long to be read on a busy day at work and yet, I couldn’t stop.
Since my daughter is not quite 4 months old, I don’t have to wrestle with this, but I appreciate the heads up. And yet, it’s a struggle my wife and I face even now, in adult life.
My wife’s mother suddenly passed away this summer. A super healthy, and wonderfully warm woman who will never get to hold my daughter.
As an atheist married to a spiritually curious woman, I struggle with where my mother-in-law is, just as Ethan does. Despite my avowed lack of belief, I must admit that I’ve felt my mother in law’s presence so many times in the last few months, and my wife has as well. Am I fooling myself? Or is there something more complicated out there than I can understand?
The distinction is less important to me than it is for my wife. For me, I can enjoy the feeling and the truth value isn’t worth exploring. For my wife, it’s of utmost importance. If she’s fooling herself, then a great tragedy has happened.
This struggle will likely continue throughout our lives. And yet, my experience thus far convinces me that true love extends beyond birth and death. Remembering those we’ve lost and expressing gratitude for them is a regular practice that helps me maintain this potential conspiracy of memory and imagination.
I loved this! I was the child that went from believing in nothing and fearing everything, to thinking existence in general was absolutely crazy and impossible, to considering God after realizing that any way the universe was created- either God or science- was nuts. When nothing made sense, everything became a possibility. As an adult I believe in God, but I acutely understand my children’s questions and doubts. A wonderful, relevant topic to explore. Thank you!
Heather, this was really moving. I believe in God but have still wrestled with the concept of death my entire life. Seeing our kids face this inevitable fact is so hard, and the desire to offer some kind of hope or reassurance is overwhelming. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Thank you for the gift of this beautifully written, affirming article on life, death, and hope. I forwarded it to all the people who have supported me through raising two children, when I was sure I was doing it all wrong. Despite my Ph.D. in Psychology and my husband’s MD, we are the two dumbest people in the house when our 9-year-old son begins asking about life, death, and the meaning of it all. He has accumulated so many questions that we had him start a journal. He seems too young for an existential crisis. I’ve suggested he ask his thought-provoking questions to our priest. This seems practical, but my son and I know what the priest will say. My son’s questions are the “Yes, but….” type of questions. The ones that can’t be answered. I have also shared my own answers with the caveat that I don’t believe there’s a Truth with a capital “T.” My son is not great with grammar, so this is probably lost on him. So it just remains one of those unresolved issues we all live with that pops up in the bathtub or driving to Florida. And my husband and I deal with it as lovingly and honestly as we can. I love the author’s telling of her family’s story, how it unfolds in the bathroom, between the handing off of children, through text messages, and during middle-of-the-night conversations. I love her sharing the little girl still inside her that wished/wishes she had been “given” faith. I love her honesty, and her mother’s honesty. I love that she has written with so much expression about this issue from the perspective of a family. And I love that she and her husband can simultaneously honor the integrity and intelligence of their children and hold on to a hope that love is so big and so powerful that maybe it’s not crazy to believe it goes on forever.
Wow… I love your writing, Heather, always have. I was so happy to see in the credits at the end of the article that you are working on a book because as I was reading “Ethan and the Question of Death” all I could think is, “I don’t want this to end! I wish this was a book that I could enjoy every night before I go to bed.” Not just because I can totally relate to the subject matter as a mother of 9 and 2-year-old sons who struggles daily with being brutally honest yet keeping the magic alive, but because I so enjoy the way you write. Please, keep it coming!
Lovely, thought provoking about a subject we all deal with as parents.
Lovely. I share your sudden panics about death and have not yet had to discuss it with my children: I’ve no idea how I’ll handle it.
Heather, this was delightful. I can remember when you and Tom were two. He asked these powerful questions but I had faith to rely upon. Now as a grown up, he has “thrown away” some of that crutch and has to run the gamut alone with his own son. Faith isn’t a bad “fall-back.”
Heather, We haven’t met, but your Mom sent this to me. We are college friends. This is a beautiful, thoughtful article. Even with faith to fall back on, this is a difficult subject to tackle at such a young age. My own children are old enough that I can’t remember when this first came up for them. A much loved great uncle died when they were around 9 & 11, but they were well into their teens before they lost a grandparent (except for my father who died well before they were born). I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.
As an aside, I refer you to singer/songwriter, Peter Mulvey, and particularly to track 9 on his CD Letters From a Flying Machine. It is a spoken word piece based on a letter written to his young niece, and tackles part of this issue.
Not sure if anyone comes back to check here but just in case, I wanted to say thank you for everyone’s kind and thoughtful comments. It’s fascinating to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences, and I’m taking them all in.