Last week, on the way to preschool, as my son, Master M., and I dipped and scaled the hills of our daily route, we came upon — just past an old farm that specializes in Cucurbitaceae (pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers) — a raccoon, dead in the road. It was as big as a small corgi and its fluffy, banded tail waved in the wind like a flag of surrender. I passed its body and then put my blinker on and pulled over.
“What are you doing?” M. asked from the backseat.
“Buddy,” I said, “there’s a raccoon back there that was hit by a car. Its body is lying in the road. And I don’t feel that leaving it that way honors the life of the raccoon. So Mommy is going to turn around and pull its body off the road and into the woods, where another animal might come along and eat it. OK?”
“Is it alive?” he asked.
“No, honey, it’s dead.” I turned the car around. Talking about death with my young child is something I’m squeamish about. On the one hand, there are many people who believe that as Americans we don’t educate our children enough that death is a part of life. But others argue that, since death and violence stream from every media outlet in our culture on a twenty-four-hour basis, preserving some innocence is also in order.
For my son and me, we’ve fallen somewhere in the middle: I’m not sure that at four years old he’s ready for me to read him Charlotte’s Web, which opens with Fern’s father procuring an ax to kill Wilbur, a runty piglet. (It’s possible that my memories of my own mother reading it out loud to me and sobbing through most of the last third of the book have colored this decision.) Yet unavoidably, in my child’s short life, we’ve already had a few up close and personal brushes with death, and we’ve always ended up in the same place: that dead animals soar to heaven to be with Ellison (our cat who died shortly after Master M. was born) and some — number undefined — angels. This was an answer that, until last week, satisfied him and seemed right enough for us all, despite the fact that our family isn’t especially religious.
Master M.’s first encounter with death, as he will tell it, involved a vole I dispensed with on a playground. He was two, and I had been gone a lot on a book tour. One of my first afternoons back from the tour and back on the full-time parenting job, I took Hopper (our dog) and Master M. for a walk. Since it was a Saturday, we stopped at a playground adjoining a local school. As we swung and climbed on the play set, Hopper roamed around the edges of the fence, sniffing and snuffling. After a little bit I noticed that he was fixated on one spot. His tail was wagging and he appeared to be pawing at something rather roughly. A moment later, I noticed that he was holding a wriggling vole in his mouth.
“Stay right there,” I commanded my son, who stood a little bit away from me, bracing himself against the still-chilly April wind.
“What does Hoppy have?” he asked.
“I think he has a vole, buddy, which is a kind of mouse.”
As I walked toward Hopper I picked up a brick.
“Drop it,” I said to Hop. He did as he was told. The vole, its leg broken and blood running from a deep canine tooth puncture, lay struggling on the ground. I didn’t have time to think or to talk this through or to prepare anyone for what I was about to do: I lifted the brick and hit the vole as hard as I could on its head, extinguishing it in one quick blow.
Hopper sat down and whined. My child grew pale.
“What did you just do, Mommy?” he whispered.
I found myself wondering what cave mothers did. How detailed were their explanations for bludgeoning small creatures?
“Honey. Let me explain,” I said, coming over to him while I left the vole body flattened underneath the brick. Meanwhile, I was thinking, Fuck, I am so not up for being a parent today! Put me back on that miserable book tour! I took a deep breath.
“Hoppy caught that vole and he hurt it by accident. He was trying to play with it, but he’s such a big dog and that vole is so tiny. It got hurt. And there was no way for Mommy to save it. So, the kindest thing for me to do was to send it to heaven to be with the angels and Ellison.”
“In the sky?” He looked up, his eyes as blue and clear as the molecules colliding miles above our heads.
“That’s right, sweetie.”
“The vole is up in the sky with Ellison and the angels?” My child, like me, is a natural-born fact-checker: He wants to get it right, make it clear.
“Right. Its soul is — that’s the part that makes the vole who the vole is, the inside part, the important part.” How do you explain a soul to a child if you’re shaky on the particulars yourself? “And now Mommy is going to take the body and put it over there by the trees so that the body can rest while the soul flies up into the sky.”
I have no idea why I was telling him that a vole body, which I had just clobbered, would now go rest in a shady glen, but I was trying to find some shred of common sense and calmness within me. While I took the bloody vole to the trees and scraped it off the brick with a stick and then threw the brick down the hill toward a gully, my son stood near the swings and waited for me.
With a big smile plastered on my face, I returned and said, “Let’s walk down to the ocean and count boats.”
Sky, Ellison, and angels seemed a sufficient explanation for the vole when my son was two. But last week, after I jumped out of the car to pull the raccoon’s body by its brown-and-black banded tail off the road and onto a small snow pile at the edge of the woods, my son had questions. Questions that I knew would lead us to places I wasn’t sure I was ready to go.
“Why is that raccoon dead?” he wanted to know. And, “How do you know it’s dead?”
I explained as best I could, for a second wiping back a few tears that seeped uninvited onto my cheeks. I was remembering three baby raccoons I raised when I was eleven — their chirpy sounds, the way they hungrily sucked at the bottles full of formula, and the way they followed me in a straight line, from largest to smallest, around our yard. This raccoon, I knew, was probably just coming out of hibernation and was hungry. It was probably slower and less careful than it might have been at other times, I told my child carefully. To myself I was thinking that it looked pregnant.
“Part of the problem,” I said, reaching for a larger teaching moment, “is people — we’ve taken up a lot of land with our roads and cars and stores and houses. And there just isn’t enough room for wild animals anymore.”
“Why do people do that?” His voice squeaked with outrage.
There was no easy answer. Later, after I dropped him off, I would berate myself, in the words of John Updike, for “dropping the mountain on the boy.” Later, after dinner, I would worry out loud to Dan that I might be teaching our child to become a misanthrope. Later, at bedtime, Master M. would tell me that he’d asked Daddy that evening, “When would we be dead?” And later, in the hot bath, when he was finally asleep, I would worry that we humans are marching toward our own inevitable dinosaurian extinction.
“And what did Daddy say?” I asked, hoping Dan had paved the way for me (and also noting that our child had not chosen to ask me this question).
“He said that wouldn’t happen for a very long time, not until I’m really, really old.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You don’t need to worry about death right now.”
Rather than answer me, he began to enumerate all the dead animals he’d encountered since the vole (which is seared into his memory like guts on brick): a fox on the side of the road after my cousin Carrie’s wedding; a squirrel last fall that I’d run over and killed after another car had maimed it; a baby spider his grandmother killed at our house, despite our lessons on how spiders are good for the environment and need to be put outside. His mind was seesawing between what Dan and I were telling him, that he really needn’t worry about death for a long, long time, and the empirical evidence that death was all around us. I found myself speechless. And then my child saved me: “They’re all up in heaven with Ellison and the angels, you know?”
“Right,” I said. For the moment, we still had somewhere to land that didn’t require any more of me than I could bear.