Alison Clement

observations from a novelist who sometimes wants to say something small and see it published immediately

Harry Finds Out About Mortality

aliceandcurtainNo! He’s not even three yet.
There was a dead deer in the river.
Why? Why did it die? Why is its head in the water? What happened? Why did it die?
He always comes back to that, that fundamental, heartbreaking human question. His mom tells him we don’t know. We die and our bodies go back into the earth and things grow and so we’re part of the life cycle.
I don’t want to die!
You won’t die for a long time. First you’ll get old and your hair will turn gray. You don’t have to worry about that now. It’s so far away.
I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to get big.
Later, when we’re alone, working in the garden, he asks again: why did that deer die?
I want to tell him that nothing dies, but really this is up to his mama, and anyway, what do I know? I say I think some part of us always lives. I tell him it’s a mystery. And then I say it’s a big surprise. And then we turn back to the garden. Maybe he figures mortality is something that will make sense later, but it isn’t.

Categories: aging, belief, children, talking to children about death

6 replies

  1. what an adventure, this second chance to teach a new generation. Tricky, and so perplexing and wonderful. I imagine you’re a wonderful Grandmother to Harrison, he’s a lucky boy. Thoughtful, too.

  2. Harrison’s Texas cousin Caden at about age 4 considered a different aspect of aging. One day he announced he didn’t want to get big. But why?! exclaimed parents. Getting big is good. No, he delared. I don’t want to be bald like my Dad.

  3. Seeing things that are not right according to our experience is terrifying — Harrison seeing a deer with its head in the water — a wrong position – had to be world shaking. It defied all he knew about deer. It is comparable to adults’ coming home and seeing their front door, locked when they left home, standing open . . . what does this portend? what else can happen? what other terrible anomalies exist?

    • Exactly! The terror of the uncanny, of the normal being not quite right. Also, in the what-else-might-be-in-store-for-me category, I remember when small child Sasha first heard the definition of cannibalism. He looked at me and said, “That’s bad. Right, mom?” (Just checking.)

  4. That brought back my moment. I’m 4yo and Mom and Dad are heading out to dinner and I am desperate to know what happens after people die. Of course, Mom couldn’t say anything that felt very reassuring. But bless her soul, she stayed home with me that evening. Do you remember when you got it that everything dies?

  5. What a sweet mom!
    I don’t remember when I found out. I was a little Catholic child and expected to go to Heaven when I died, which greatly offsets the horror of mortality. But I remember when Charlotte made the realization. She was about the same age as you, 4, at the time. “We’re going to die,” she kept saying. Finally, I told her that we wouldn’t die for a very long time. And then I slowly counted to 85, to show her just far away it was– of course, it was disingenuous.I didn’t tell her that, in fact, it goes by like a flash.

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