Most of our children’s “why” questions are about the life that surrounds them. Then, there is a day where they invite the Grim Reaper to loom amongst their thoughts. They become curious about death. My four-year-old is visiting this dark side for the first time this week, thanks to the movie, Charlotte’s Web.
I remember when I was six; I sat on my parent’s black, leather recliner next to my father. It was a dark and gloomy day outside, suitable to the topic that had seeped into my thoughts. I was curious about death, but can’t remember what sparked it. I was faced with a fear that would take a slice of my innocence away forever.
Sure, it’s a simple discussion about the “circle of life”, but it offers the possibility that loved ones could someday disappear. For my daughter, Charlotte’s Web has introduced this concept to her psyche. She is now wondering what happens after life.
If I had a choice, I would prolong this discussion for years to come. I would wait until well after puberty or even college to acknowledge the concept. I would let her live in a safe bubble for years and years. Sure, she’d be an outcast or a freak, but she’d always feel safe. She wouldn’t question whether I’d always be there for her.
Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Sadness and loss exist. Her preschool has decided to take her class on a school bus to a local production of Charlotte’s Web next week. The play is G-rated, just like the movie, but I feel the topic is X-rated for mommies like me, offering the loss of innocence. Sure, it’s just a tiny sliver of that innocence, but it’s a loss, nonetheless.
In order to prepare her for the scary topics touched upon in the play, I decided to let her watch the movie with me. I looked on the Amazon Prime movie stream, willing to pay a few bucks to save her teacher from a slew of heavy questions. Questions I would only want to answer myself.
I found the movie, clicked on the icon and made the purchase. The opening credits rolled and then a cartoon never surfaced. Wait a minute. Wait one cotton-picking minute. This is the live action version with Dakota Fanning and I just paid $4 for it. Babyface was lost in it, staring at the screen like a zombie, so I looked up the rating. It was G-rated, so we were ready to go. I would take a chance and hope that they didn’t show the slaughterhouse. Thank goodness for my child-safe remote that offers a “pause” and “fast forward” option.
The opening sequence had Fern in bed on a dark and rainy day. A gloomy day, just like the day I had a small slice of my innocence taken away at six. She put on her rain boots and raincoat over her pajamas. My daughter of course asked, “Mommy, can I wear my raincoat and rain boots with my pajamas?”
The “why” questions were starting off easy, I thought. I pictured her pushing a boulder up a mountain, slowly. I pictured the name Sisyphus written on her raincoat. I knew I was ready to be the “absurd”, unprepared to answer the rest of her questions. A smoky voiced Sam Shepherd did the voiceover for Albert Camus.
Dakota Fanning, I mean Fern, ran to the barn to find her father with an axe. A mother pig was feeding her many babies. One pig was not able to make its way in. Fern’s father lifted the pig. Fern screamed to stop him. “Mommy, what’s the Daddy going to do to the pig?” asked Babyface. Ruh roh.
“Honey, just watch the movie. Do you want some popcorn?” I replied.
I couldn’t tell her just yet. I would deflect the inevitable for as long as I could. I wasn’t ready for the slew of murderous questions my answer might raise.
Fern saved the pig and cared for it, as if it was her own baby doll. She washed him. She pushed him in a baby carriage. She even named him Wilber. I was full of nostalgia and loved the lesson this shared with my Babyface of taking care of an animal.
The pig grew and it was time for it to go. Fern’s mother offered the suggestion to give it to her Uncle Homer. He had lots of animals. It was summer and the days were gloriously shiny, but the pig was still a “Spring Pig”. Babyface didn’t catch onto that term, so I let it be. Again, as far as I was concerned, I would steer her clear of any deep and possibly dark questions for as long as I could.
Wilbur met the two geese, the horse, Templeton the Rat King and all of the other animals. They all talked, so Babyface was sublimely distracted. Then, came the question of the slaughterhouse that looked like an outhouse. The animals stared at it with fear and mentioned the term “Spring Pig” again. I thought about telling her that the pig was just frightened to go pee pee. “Mommy, what is that house? What are the people going to do with the pig in there?”
She ran to my recliner and climbed in with her Cuckoo the Crocodile and ladybug blanket. This immediately reminded me of the day I sat in my father’s, black recliner. The day I asked about death.
“Honey, do you know how you eat chicken? You know that chicken comes from chickens, right? You know people cook chickens to get protein to grow big and strong, right? Well, people eat meat from other animals like cows and pigs that make red meat and pork, too. Does that make sense?” I asked.
I watched my tone of voice, the whole way through. I almost mimicked Mr. Rogers, just to make the idea sound safe. I felt like a big, fat liar, even though I was telling the truth. I questioned whether I was ready to discuss the “circle of life” and the idea of natural selection.
My answer seemed to work. “Okay, Mommy. That makes sense.”
Phew. I was sweating. I pictured my recliner climbing out of quicksand. We were safe. We were safe…for now.
The movie introduced Charlotte, the spider. Babyface loves spiders, even though she’s scared of them. They’re like my horror movies to her. They intrigue her, even though she’s terrified.
The rest of the movie went off without a hitch. No serious questions. She giggled and asked silly ones about the animals, the web and the little girl, but the clouds were gliding over her sunshine slowly. I knew the end of the movie was near. I knew Charlotte would create her egg nest and then “part ways” from Wilbur. It wouldn’t be explained why she let Wilbur take her babies back to the barn, but I knew Babyface would wonder. Charlotte would be left to die in peace.
As Wilbur and Templeton entered the cage to go back to the farm, Babyface ducked her head into my shoulder. I could feel her tears soak the shoulder of my blouse. “Mommy, why is the Mommy spider staying there? Why is Wilbur taking her babies? Mommy, why isn’t she going with them?!?” she shouted.
I paused the movie and hugged her tight, with all of my might. I knew I would now have to answer her questions about “the circle of life”. I inhaled. I was ready to exhale with a real and true answer about birth, life and death. “Well, the Mommy just wants to take some time away from her babies. The Mommy just needs a time out. She’ll walk to see her babies, later. Wilbur will babysit them for now. They’re safe,” I replied.
So, there it was. The first big lie I have ever told my daughter. I lied to her, because even starting the discussion felt like I was taking away her favorite stuffed animal (Cuckoo the Crocodile), lady bug blanket and dim switch in her room, all at once. I’m a wimp.
When I was pregnant, I thought I would be ready to answer these sad questions about life. And, yes, death can be swung into a scientific or religious state, safely. I just wasn’t ready to take a slice from her innocence, no matter how small. Here’s to hoping that some kid at that play doesn’t scream, “The Mommy spider is dead!”
I’m sure her clothes will be soaked in tears and my mind soaked in regret. I think I’ll stock up on chocolate for after the show. I think we may both need it.