Building up to Sean's surgery last week, we had a number of busy days planned with some fun activities to make the week exciting and keep him distracted. One day we made sugar cookie dough, rolled it out, cut cookies into fun shapes, baked them, and then the next day we decorated them. A big hit. We had movie nights, a special jello breakfast before his surgery (code word: clear liquid diet), and I even tried to make his pre-op physical at the doctor seem fun (that was a huge failure, though we succeeded in getting the physical - a blog for another time). Last Wednesday, we planned a trip to the Minnesota Zoo. We were venturing out with my friend Kate and her daughter, Charlotte, who is roughly Sean's age. Kate explained to me that the highlight of the trip to the zoo would be the dolphin show, so when I began talking this up to Sean last week, he quickly glommed onto the dolphin show idea. On the car ride down to the zoo, Sean remembered other zoo trips he's made in the past, and he began a series of logical questions:
Sean: Will a lion and tiger be there?
Sean: Because I get scared of the lion and the tiger.
me: I know you do. But maybe you could look at them this time and see if you can be brave.
Sean: I get scared of the lion and the tiger.
me: That's true, but they are always in cages.
Sean: Why are the animals in cages?
question stopped me, because I have my own issues with animals in cages.
I ask this same question every time I visit a zoo. Why DO we put
animals in cages?
me: Well, we need to have the animals
in cages, because they are wild animals. If they weren't in cages,
then they could get hurt or we could get hurt.
Sean: Why would we get hurt?
yeeeessss.... Why would we get hurt? Because we live on this wild,
wild earth, and we are not really in control of the animals, we just
have the illusion of control? Because that's what this whole life is
about: an illusion of control. That's just it: an illusion!
I didn't say that. Instead I came up with something that felt more appropriate for my nearly 3-year-old son.
me: Well, these animals are strong, powerful animals, and if they were not
in their cages, they might be able to hurt somebody. That's why we keep
them in their cages.
Sean: Why do they put the animals in the cages?
me: I already answered that question.
Sean: But why?
me: Why not?
Sean: No, don't say why not!
lure Sean out of the car and get him moving fast towards the zoo
entrance, we talked about the dolphin show: what did he think we would
see there: would the dolphins dance? would the dolphins flip? would the
dolphins talk? He was still moving slow as molasses when we finally
hit the zoo entrance. At the front desk, there was a sign posted
saying: THE DOLPHIN EXHIBIT IS
CLOSED. THERE WILL BE NO DOLPHIN SHOW TODAY.
WHAT? That's the whole reason we came! When
Kate and Charlotte arrived, Kate inquired about the reason for the
dolphin show being canceled. Turns out the 19-month-old baby dolphin
had died the day before, and they closed the exhibit to give the
mother and father dolphins some privacy. This of course opened a whole new can of worms,
and a whole new string of logical questions.
Sean: Why did the baby dolphin die?
me: I don't know.
Sean: But I want to see the dolphin show! (the subtext his little mind could not articulate was: YOU TOLD ME I COULD SEE A DOLPHIN SHOW TODAY!)
me: I know you do, buddy, but the mom and dad dolphin are sad, so the zookeepers are giving them some quiet time.
Sean: Why are they sad?
me: Because their baby died.
Sean: Why did the baby dolphin die?
me: I don't know, Seancito, they are going to figure that out.
Sean: But I want to see the dolphin show!
me: I know, I heard you. We are not going to see it today, but maybe we can come back another time and see the dolphins.
Instead we saw the bird show, which was great fun... for me, Audrey, Kate, and Charlotte. Sean was not impressed. Or if he was, he hid his excitement because he was still upset about the lack of dolphin show. (That, and the fact that it was randomly German Day at the zoo (no idea that this even existed), so the bird show was almost entirely in German, there were high school and middle school students strewn about the zoo's exhibits with displays and skits in German, and there was a man walking around with an accordion playing German music for the crowds The man was dressed in full lederhosen. I didn't blame Sean for feeling a little strange about the whole trip.) So on the car ride back home, I tried to ease the disappointment.
me: What was your favorite part of the zoo, Seancito?
Sean: I don't know.
me: Was it the bird show?
Sean: NO! I didn't want to see the bird show, I wanted to see the dolphin show!
Smooth move. Instead of inspiring a positive memory, I reinforced a negative one.
me: (non-nonchalantly) Yeah, that was a bummer. But we did get to see a bird show! (I refused to give into the negativity.)
Sean: Why did the baby dolphin die?
me: I think maybe it was sick...
Sean: Why couldn't they make the baby dolphin better?
on and on for the whole 25 minute drive home. The strangest thing for me was that I felt sad and
disturbed by the dolphin's death. Similarly to the questions of why
do we put animals in cages, I felt ill prepared to answer the questions
about why the dolphin died. The answer is... well, there is no answer
in my mind. This just happens. It's part of life. And yet, that's not
a satisfying answer to a 2.5 year old.
This feeling reminded
me of when Sean was born: I had this crazy existential moment where I
saw myself fully in the circle of life. Cheesy? Maybe. Real? Very
much so. With his birth I suddenly joined the ranks of "those with
children" and thus became a part of an older generation. Compared with
the generation that my son just joined, I was the parent who would
journey ahead of this child. God willing, I would leave the earth
before he would.
Tangentially: I sing Audrey a lullaby each night before bed: Billy Joel's Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel). He wrote the song for his daughter.
Good night, my angel, time to close your eyes
And leave these quetsions for another day.
I think I know what you've been asking me
I think you know what I've been trying to say.
I promised I would never leave you,
And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away.
Then at the closing of the song:
Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabies go on and on.
They never die
That's how you and I will be.
**If you're laughing at me right now, (Sean Agniel) then I suggest you look up this song on youtube and listen to it. I dare you to judge me after you've understood it's beauty. Or you can call me before YOU go to bed tonight and I'll sing it to you - then perhaps you won't find it so funny.**
His words get at the heart of a feeling that creeps up on me pretty frequently: we are only mortal. This life is but fleeting, and these moments - not just with our children, but with everyone we love - pass quickly. It never feels logical to me, because this life is all I know, but in the end we all will die - that's pretty depressing!
Yet with this dolphin, it didn't seem logical that the baby would go
first. Sean kept asking questions about the dolphin and why the parents
were sad. I finally came to this reasoning:
me: Sean, if something happened to you or Audrey, dad and I would be really sad.
me: Because you are our kids and we love you.
Sean: Just like I love Audrey? And I love dad?
me: Right. (STILL I'm sanctioned to a lower class of citizen - an untouchable. Or should I say an unmentionable? Tom swears that when I'm not around, Sean always includes me in these loving thoughts spoken aloud. Tom believes Sean is aware of how much it gets under my skin, and therefore purposefully leaves me out. If this is true, I'm blaming his godfather - SEAN AGNIEL.)
Sean: But why did the baby dolphin die?
Again, I felt the subtext of all his questions hinting at something deeper. What is death? What is the meaning of this life? Why can it be cut so short? What do we make of these precious relationships we build here on earth, and what comes of them when we pass on to the afterlife? Is that baby dolphin in heaven? I hope so.
me: I don't know why the dolphin died. They are trying to figure that out. The mom and dad dolphin were sad so they needed some quiet time. Maybe the next time we go to the zoo we can see the dolphin show.
Sean continued to think about this while gently pushing on the left-side of his lip (a common idiosyncratic gesture for him). I thought perhaps he was having an existential moment. I wondered if he felt scared at all about his upcoming surgery, his second lip revision. Or was he considering his own mortality? I pondered my mortal existence as a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend to all these amazing people in my life. I thought of Billy Joel's words to his own daughter, grasping at an explanation of how they will always be connected, how he'll never truly leave her, but he may not always be physically there. Then, quietly from my logical son:
Sean: I wasn't sad, I just really wanted to see the dolphin show.