There we were, enjoying the naive innocence of "tub time", when VB mentioned that he'd like to go to the hospital to visit Baby M. This it where it begins -- the time when questions are asked no child should need to have answered.
You see, "Baby M" is the young co-cancer-fighter who died back in the fall.
VM calls me upstairs to explain who VB has said he will visit. We look at one another with sad eyes. Of course, we knew this day would come. I suppose that every parent has to deal with the "death" issue at some point, but if you're lucky it involves the death of a turtle, sock puppet, or something else benign. Not another human being -- and certainly not someone who died of the same thing that could still spell the end for the inquisitive child as well.
I respond that Baby M is not at the hospital any more. VB disagrees, clearly looking for something more satisfying in a response. VM starts to explain. "VB, do you remember when you were sick? Well, Baby M was very sick -- very, very sick."
"Yeah," VB replied, with his shoulders shrugged and his hands raised in an "I don't know why" position. "She's sick. She needs medicine real fast."
"Well," VM said tentatively, "the medicine didn't work. She was too sick."
"So she's gone," I tack on.
VB thinks for a moment. "Yeah, she moved to a new house."
"Well....Sort of." VM shoots me a look as I give this reply. Technically it was a fair answer -- depending on your view of the afterlife. "He's only 3" I whisper quickly, "there isn't much of this he's going to understand."
Many years ago I used to run summer leadership camps for high school students. As camps go it was a rather emotionally intensive affair, complete with intense bonding and "warm fuzzy" sharing amongst participants. Towards the end of the program, when we were working with the youth to help them prepare to say goodbye to the experience and head home, myself or a camp counselor would read The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. We'd of course lighten the discussion of death that is at the core of the story, and instead use it as a metaphor for endings in general.
Never in a million years would I ever have conceived I'd find myself running around my house one day, searching for my copy, so I could help my son understand why his little friend is gone; that the same thing that took her away almost took him as well...And still might some day.
Yet, there I was.
However, by the time I found it, I returned to VB's bedroom to find him curled up in bed with a far better book. With a mix of relief, and the nagging existential angst that keeps me drinking way too much coffee, I put death aside for another day...And hopefully many, many more.