The other morning I was getting dressed in the pre-dawn dark, when I heard a quiet sobbing coming from the twins’ bedroom. This was unusual, not because there was sobbing, but because it was quiet. My kids know very well the dramatic effect of tears and they like to play to a live audience. But in this case, the crying was so muffled that I had to hold my ear up to the door for a full minute before I could even ascertain whether it was crying or just weird mouth-breathing.
I went in and found the Wolvog in tears — actual wet tears — staining his face while his whole body shook with sobs.
“I had a nightmare,” he announced between gasps.
I picked him up and carried him to the glider that’s been in their room since the day we brought them home from the hospital. Back then they were attached to heart monitors which were the farewell present from the NICU they had spent their first three weeks of life inhabiting. Five-and-a-half years ago I could cradle him in my forearm. Now as he laid sobbing on me, too disconsolate for words, his body stretched down to my knees and I wondered how much longer he would continue to embrace me like that. I rubbed his back and kissed the nape of his neck, not just warm but hot — he’d clearly been sleeping with the covers over his head again despite our pleas with him to stop.
When he had calmed down a little bit I asked him, “Did you have a bad dream?” He nodded his head at me and cried a little harder. And then I asked him, “Do you want to tell me what it was about?” Which was a strange formulation for that question. I usually just ask, “What happened in your nightmare?” It is taken for granted that he would want to tell me. He’s five. What kind of dark secrets could he be harboring in his dream life that I should ask permission for him to share? But for some reason, that’s how I asked him. Perhaps it was because while he’s had plenty of bad dreams in the recent past, this was the first time he seemed legitimately terrified. I didn’t want him to talk about it if the result would be to give added life to that terror. At the same time, I had the father’s confidence, that if he told me, I could dispatch the fear by assuring him that there were no monsters in the closet, no sharks in the bathtub, no agents of Darth Vader roaming our neighborhood. But better he should confront whatever fear this was when he was ready to face it, so I instead I asked, “Do you want to tell me what it was about?”
“I dreamed you died.”
My first unspoken thought: “Am I dead?” For a second I couldn’t tell. What if this was not his nightmare, but my dream between life and death, and my son had come to me to let me know I was gone. Bullshit. As quickly as I thought that I dismissed it as absurd and adolescent. But now both of us were a little bit terrified.
My second, also unspoken thought: “How did I die?” Hey, I’m curious. Who by flood and who by fire? But that line of questioning seemed more likely to prolong the trauma than heal it. I still kind of wish he could tell me — I don’t believe dreams are prophesy, but then again, I could be wrong.
Instead I did the fatherly thing.
I lied to him.
“I’m not going to die for a long time,” which seemed a better choice than, “I don’t plan on dying,” or “The odds of me dying before I reach the average lifespan for a college-educated Jewish male in the United States are very reassuring.”
“Not until you’re 100?” The Chickienob was awake now and had been quietly listening to us.
Figuring there was no reason to stop at one lie I said, “Not until I’m at least 100.”
What else could I say?
I’m not particularly afraid of dying. I worry about being forgotten, but actually ceasing to exist doesn’t trouble me in the same way. I walked away from a terrorist attack in Jerusalem when I was in my twenties. I know death can be sudden, unfair and merciless. But five-and-a-half is awfully young to learn this fact. We’ve haven’t tried to shelter the kids from death, but to treat it in a respectable manner — we brought them to Mel’s grandmother’s burial because it seemed wrong to “hide” the fact and reality of her death.
But the fact and reality of MY death are another matter altogether.
Eventually he calmed down. He hasn’t mentioned it again, but it keeps rattling around in my head.
He’s too young and it’s too soon, but I want to say to him, “Some day I will die. Hopefully it won’t be for a long time, and you’ll be older and have a family of your own and I’ll have long since stopped being the person who you need to feel safe in the world. Hopefully we’ll both be ready to say goodbye. But it may not go that way, and if it ever does, I am so so sorry. Know that I love you and your sister and your mom with my whole being, and you’ll carry that love with you forever no matter where I am. That I want you to use that love to build a happy and successful life for yourself in whatever way you choose to do so. That it is okay if the way you choose to do so takes awhile to figure out. That the only answer to the death of someone you love is more life. That there’s a reason the mourner’s prayer in Hebrew starts with the word, ‘yitgadal’ meaning ‘make bigger.’ You and your sister are the best thing I ever did with my life. That would still be true if I died tomorrow or in a hundred and fifty years. Love your life.”
And now…I’m gonna get myself a beer and watch Dumbledore get-it from Snape.