“Dad is that man dying?” my 7-year-old son asked, pointing to a giant Calvin Klein billboard ad. This one portrayed a gaunt guy in a twisting sort of stance who is lost in a rapture of pleasure or pain, whichever the viewer prefers. Since the picture seems to refer to activities and feelings I hope never to understand, it’s in the large category of things I hope my kids will never ask me about.
“No, Davy,” I answered, “It’s a just a silly ad. The skinny man is supposed to very, very happy to be wearing such great underpants. Ha-ha!
I’ve become a master of the fast, definite, stupid answer in response to my son’s transition to the stage of family philosopher. To an older child, I suppose, the picture would be the occasion of a parent-stumping question about sex. But in Davy’s mind, as in those of many other 7-year-olds, images of death lurk everywhere.
A constant undercurrent of conjecture about death runs through Davy’s mind and surfaces at the oddest times. We can be driving along, listening to Tanya Tucker on the radio, and he might blurt out, “If I swallowed a tulip bulb, would it kill me?” He can stop breakfast with , “If a tornado picked up our house, what would happen to us?” He can stare at a 100-year-old steam locomotive in a train museum and interrupt my scintillating lecture with, “God must really love trains. He doesn’t let them die.”
This philosophical stage shuffled in quietly a year ago in the form of Egyptian mummies. Back then the real subject – death – came disguised as the colorful and exotic topic of ancient Egypt. It was fun to answer questions like “How did they build the pyramids?” and “How big is the Sphinx?” and go to the Field museum to look at the beautiful mummy cases.
But Davy will no longer tolerate this cover. One day I showed him an article in a news magazine about a recently discovered giant tomb in ancient Egypt. The article had terrific photographs of Egyptian statues and educational graphics about the pharaohs. His eyes never hit the page.
“What are those people doing?” he asked, jerking the page back to the previous article. The picture showed health-care workers in surgical masks burying an Ebola virus victim in Zaire. “It’s an article about a disease in a country very far away,” I replied, scrambling to distract him. He stared at the picture. “Read the words, Dad.”
At his age, my biggest transition was from being Superman to being Zorro. And the challenging questions I asked my parents had to do with the care and construction of capes, for as every child back then knew, no problem was so big that it couldn’t be solved with proper costuming. I’m sure that on some deep level I was trying to get control of a threatening world by adopting powerful identities, but I didn’t make this leap from Zorro to family philosopher when I was 7.
In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever made it comfortably. As a grown-up, I face the question of mortality honestly during family crises, but most of the time I buzz along in hyperkinetic way, pushing Big Questions aside and focusing relentlessly on the small ones. In fact, the smaller the better.
I check out the sports pages in the newspaper before I read the news articles and move with scary ease from reports of crime and catastrophe to the comics pages. I barely skimmed the article that transfixed Davy about the deadly African virus, but I absorbed with hungry interest every word about ancient Egypt. It’s as if I’ve developed a form of super-selective vision that causes the horrors of life to bounce off my eyes in a single bound. My Superman approach to life has, in some ways, merely been updated.
Not so for Davy. His 7-year-old’s normal awakening to the reality of death has been accelerated by brutal media images his parents never faced as children. He knows a Power Rangers outfit is no help when his cartoon show is interrupted by a newsbreak about a terrorist attack or a celebrity murder trial. So when his questions deal with images more serious than weird billboards, I try to do the impossible: be honest yet reassuring, knowing that no answer will, on the spot, completely satisfy him.
And no matter how bizarre his questions may be (“Dad, would eating a blade of grass kill you?”), they do more than remind me that life is fragile and cape proof. They teach me to meet life with awareness, persistence, and nerve, like an inquisitive 7-year-old determined to face his fears head-on.