A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
The Whim of Iron Battles the Inevitable
One of the disadvantages of four-year-old Hugh being so scientifically minded is actually identical to one of the joys: he’s good at putting two and two together, inferring, deducing, and elaborating. Sometimes this is an utterly magical process to watch. I remember one day he looked at the row of volcanoes down the West coast of North America and deduced that "the continental drift is pushing things together there." "That’s right, my genius son," I replied. I was at least two inches taller for a day or so.
Recently, he rolled over at bedtime and asked Janice "Mommy, what are the rules of death?" Hugh has encountered death already in his life, when his maternal grandmother died two years ago. At the time, he took it fairly matter-of-factly. "She turn to bones?" he asked. Yup. Just like T. Rex. This time it was different, though. This time he turned the brilliant lens of his scientific inclination toward the subject of death. What are the rules? How does it work? Who dies? Why? How do we stop it?
I can’t bring myself to lie to him, but I am very careful about
the way I approach a topic. Many people believe that instead of
thinking about death, it is more important to value and enjoy an
interesting, joyful and loving life.
When his brother Keefe went through a time of anxiety about that very thing, we could talk about numbers and probabilities. With Keefe I could say "It’s like this: take this golf ball to the park and throw it away from you as far and as hard as you possibly can. Okay? Now take this second golf ball and try to hit the first one with it. Space is several hundred billion times bigger, so even if you miss by a millimeter, that’s like an asteroid missing us by ten million miles. Not one human being in all of recorded history has been killed by an object from space; it’s really the looking-both-ways-when-you-cross-the-street sort of thing that makes the big difference in your life."
I could tell that approach wouldn’t work with Hugh, and not only because the concept of odds is a little too hard to grasp when you’re just starting to subtract. The part of the message he’d pick up is "you’ll die from not looking both ways when you cross the street." Here, though, science is a useful tool, as I can beat down his fears with a string of credible facts. I find him a website with a picture of Eugene Shoemaker at Lowell observatory and a few words about his work charting the Earth's movement -- crossing asteroids we can find. Also NASA has a website with an animation about what could possibly be attempted if we knew that divine fastball was being pitched at us. We sort of gloss over the fact that this is all theory. It’s still science. Hugh believes it, and he feels safe.
But he persists. "What kills people here? What do I do to not die?" And that’s the crux of the matter: a moment of realization that we’ve all had, but cannot remember. Hugh has discovered that mortality includes himself. I tell Hugh that one danger that we face is accidents. He already knows how to be careful with sharp things and hot things, to stay away from toxic things and to ask what something is before he explores it, and remembering those rules is a great way to stave off death. We also talk about disease, and how we help prevent it by washing our hands and not eating things from the floor, eating the right foods and getting enough sleep. Apparently I'm not as convincing as I'd hoped. "I’m not going to sleep tonight, Daddy," he's told me every night for the past month. "I have bad dreams. I can’t sleep or I’ll have bad dreams."
Together, we look up bad dream remedies on the Internet. We learn that Chinese foo dogs at the foot of the bed can scare away bad dreams. We print some and stick them on the bookcase. We make our own dream catcher out of a net bag, a yogurt tub and some yarn. The best one, though, seems to be the one that we make up ourselves: the good dream volcano. Jan is of the opinion that all the stories of flesh-savaging dinosaurs and pyroclastic volcanoes might be a bad idea for before-bedtime reading. Easier to say than do -- they are the central preoccupations of Hugh’s waking life at this time. But if you can’t beat ‘em, get them to work for you. We make a simple foam volcano, Hugh writes the words ‘good dreams’ on it, and we write a broad selection of Hugh’s favorite things on thin strips of red, orange, yellow and purple paper and have them ‘erupting’ out of the top. Every night he picks two out before bed to plant some good dreams in his noggin. Tonight he’s on the planet Mars with some friendly T. Rexes. What could be cooler than that?
Still, death’s grip on his attention persists like a cockroach:
I tell him some people believe that when you die, your soul goes on to be born again in another body and live another beautiful life. Maybe a part of it stays behind to watch over and love the people that we knew when we were alive. I tell him he can’t see grandma in her body again, because she’s done with it, like a set of shoes that don’t fit any more, but that he can still feel the love that she’s got for him. "How?" he ponders. I tell him I’m making chocolate pudding for dessert; that, like him, chocolate was one of his grandma’s favorite things. I tell him we’ll put out a little bowl of it for grandma’s spirit, and we'll do an experiment: we'll take a nice spoonful of that chocolate pudding, and hold it in our mouth, enjoying the taste. We'll close our eyes and think about some of the things we used to do with grandma, the way we used to feel when we were with her. I tell him that when you feel a happy feeling in your heart, that is grandma’s spirit touching you. As long as we remember her, the love she gave us is still alive, and that’s a living part of her spirit. When science inevitably reaches its limits, we come to the work of poets.
Today, with his fifth birthday imminent, everything is back to normal,
and the anxiety storm has passed. He’s absorbed whatever he needed to,
and he’s back to the lighthearted play that is natural to him.
Likely it comes from the fact that his interest in dinosaurs and
volcanoes has been eclipsed by the solar system, and he’s happily
engaged in learning the names of dozens of asteroids and moons and
space missions and the conditions found elsewhere in our tiny corner of
the galaxy. His hungry mind’s filling up with new and quantifiable
stuff again and I am as happy as if I'd won a contest
or something. A whole new vista of knowledge opens before us: a
welcome break from the monotony of roars and eruptions. And besides
furthering his scientific gifts, we’ve managed a successful segue into
another more rare field of knowledge. The kind of intelligence Leonardo Da
Vinci referred to as ‘sfumato’: an appreciation for paradox, things
unknowable, and our relationship with them.
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