"I don’t want to die, Baba." As these words came out of Reina’s mouth one night at bedtime, I could almost hear the gears in my brain shift from neutral to overdrive. Brain to mouth: "Mayday, mayday, we’ve received no instruction on this topic. Sorry. Brain out." Despite silently praying with intense, albeit brief, fervor that she would simply nod off and forget the subject, Reina followed up with, "I don’t want Mama to die either." Then she hurled her face into the pillow and burst into tears. As I sat on the edge of her bed, having an existential moment, I pondered how we got from Curious George to this? More importantly, why didn’t she mention me?
When Reina began bringing up the subject of her demise, I presumed this was unusual behavior for a toddler. Far from it. A hasty, yet exhausting, amount of research led me to discover that two other families here in Beijing dealt with similar inquiries about death from their 3-year-olds. That’s 100 percent of the people I polled, so it must happen with every kid around that age.
Even so, no parents mentioned this to us in advance. According to my statistical analysis of the data, it seems the death of a pet or a relative is a common catalyst for this topic amongst the toddler age bracket. Yet nothing of the sort has happened in Reina’s lifetime. Another father speculated that this behavior might be a response to some other pressure in Reina’s daily life, such as bullying at school. After all, death is a fairly big topic for a toddler to take in and actually comprehend. If this is the case, it may be impossible to find the root cause of this recent preoccupation with the subject.
Inadvertently, I managed to compound the situation after bringing home a stack of new storybooks to read to Reina. Reading one after another, I was halfway though The Green Frogs: A Korean Folktale Retold by Yumi Heo, before realizing that the mother frog dies in the story and has to be buried by her two sons. It’s a touching story and the illustrations are wonderful, but the timing was unfortunate, to say the least. That night, Reina cried herself to sleep not wanting Mama to ever leave her, while I admonished myself for not screening the books a little more thoroughly. Though to be fair, what were the odds of that happening?
Considering that it was too soon to take Reina to a psychotherapist and not knowing what else to do, Savvy and I took the time to explain, as best as we could, the concept of a normal life and death and how we would almost certainly all live for a very long time. We even assured her that in death we would all be together; a concept she may not be too keen on, considering she isn’t preoccupied with my early demise. I hear from other fathers that I shouldn’t expect that until she’s a teenager.
In the end, we told Reina that it was morbid to focus on dying, especially at the age of 3. I told her that I, personally, wanted to live. Then Mama said she wanted to live. Then we all agreed that living was indeed a good thing.
And that’s how we finally put that topic to rest. Thank goodness that’s the last difficult question Reina will ever spring on us.
Christopher Lay comes from the small town of Ashland, Oregon, US. He is the father of 3-year-old Reina and husband to Savvy Him. He is a freelance photographer and writer in Beijing. Visit his photo blog at www.alivenotdead.com/chrislay.