We are lying side-by-side on Little Bear’s bed about to begin our nightly ritual of stories and songs in the dark. Just before we begin, Little Bear references an earlier conversation about my placing a shell beside his baby brother whom we are going to bury in a few days.
Little Bear: Did you give him one of my shells?
Me: No, I gave him one of mine. I wouldn’t give him one of yours without asking.
Little Bear: Do you have more of your shells so I can have one too? You didn’t give him your only shell? I want one.
Me: Oh, yes, you can have one of my shells for your very own.
Little Bear: I want one that is red or gold or pink. If the shells are just pale, I don’t want one. You didn’t him your only shell? You saved one for me, right?
I smile in the dark. Here it is: sibling rivalry and my son’s younger brother isn’t even alive. We had been speaking of the burial that is happening in a few days. Before sleep is the place where I learn what is on the heart and mind of my child. It’s a liminal space, lying together in the dark, not sleeping, but not in the world of the day. This is why bedtime has always been so precious to me (even on those nights when I just want him to go to sleep already). Here is where I hear his fears or worries, what is puzzling him or some nugget I would never hear when he is busy running about. Now is when we slow down, lie down together. Our ritual is three stories, some singing and then sleep.
We used to read stories but then we started telling them in the dark. For the longest time, I told him stories about vehicles; we created Diego the Dump Truck, Franny the Front Loader, etc and their adventures. For the past six or seven months, we have telling “Caillou and Rosie” stories. He gets Caillou books from the library and sometimes enjoys Caillou episodes on netflix. Our Caillou and Rosie stories always begin in the same way: Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Caillou. He and his sister Rosie would wake up early together every morning, go downstairs and make breakfast. While they were eating, the bell would ring, ding dong and in would come Little Bear and all the kids.
These stores always involve “Little Bear and all the kids.” The “kids” are an assortment of children from his school and neighborhood, cousins and characters from books. And they always solve a mystery. Though I tell most of the story, there are parts we share. He will often talk for Little Bear, though if he doesn’t want to speak and I’m pausing, waiting for him to add his part, he’ll say, “you” and that means I speak for Little Bear. Other times, he’ll jump in and narrate the action, often with some wild twist in plot that only a four year old could come up with. Or he’ll speak as one of the characters (And then Harriet said, Come on! Let’s go jump on the spaceship!).
But there is always a mystery, like I said. And the mystery is always solved, most often by the end of the story, but if not, we solve the mystery in the second story. And there is never more than three stories.
Tonight, the mystery my son announces in character is this: we are looking for a box.
Me, as Paloma (one of the kids): What kind of a box?
Little Bear, as Little Bear: A box with my baby in it.
Me, as Paloma: A box with your baby in it? Why is your baby in a box?
Little Bear, Little Bear: Because he died.
Me, as Paloma: How did he die?
Little Bear, as Little Bear: He came out too early.
Me, as Paloma: Too early? What do you mean?
Little Bear: Mommy, you know.
Me, as Mommy: You want me to speak for Little Bear?
Little Bear: Yes.
Me, as Little Bear: My baby came out of my mommy’s belly too early, so he died.
Me, as Paloma: Oh. What’s his name?
Little Bear, as Little Bear: His name is Julian Skye.
Suddenly, writing this, I can’t recount any more of our conversation, for I just realized something: as the character interacting with my son, I did not ask him how he feels. I’m stunned by this. How could I have missed the opportunity to ask my son how he feels about his baby brother dying?
I suppose I did not ask him because I was in character. As another child, I asked him what a child would ask, not a mother or a therapist.
He went on to tell me the baby would be buried. And then he had me play Little Bear again, telling the kids (and himself, of course) what was going to happen when we buried him. From there, we broke out of the story and Little Bear asked the questions he must have been wanting to ask for days: Did we dress the baby? What about the baby’s skin? What does his skin look like? Does he have bones?
Suddenly, I regretted not giving my son a chance to see Julian’s body. It had been so important for me and Sweet Pea. But my son? Speaking so frankly about the death of his baby brother already feels like such a taboo. And we had been hiding the fact that Julian’s body was stored in the freezer (see https://givemethesky.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/little-bear-wants-to-know/).
But now, he had to know. The mystery of where the box was located had to be solved and it was. Next morning, first thing, Little Bear asked to look in the freezer. So, we did.