Stopping for Death
By Kristen Witucki
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me”
On a soft spring morning when sunlight dappled us through the trees, my friend, Anita, and I, both blind, took Langston, my three-year-old sighted son, to the playground at the West Virginia School for the Blind where we worked. I braced myself to cross High Street, the busy street near our house. There are no traffic lights on that corner, so the “rule” is that you wait for a break in the traffic and make a dash for it. This meant that Anita and I listened to make sure there was no traffic approaching before crossing the street. The three of us crossed without apparent incident, but I learned that death had, in fact, occurred. As we continued walking toward the playground, Langston told me, “The squirrels laid down.”
“What?” I said.
“The car came, and it ran over the squirrels. They laid down and didn’t get up. It was on its back with its belly up.”
“He must be making up a story,” Anita said.
“No,” I said, feeling myself hurtling toward an empty space even as I continued to walk in an upright position, my son’s small hand in mine. “He never spoke that way before. He saw it.”
I wanted to ask Langston if the squirrels were bleeding, if any bones were broken, but I wasn’t sure he knew what blood was or if he wanted to stare at or recall broken bones. Not seeing the damage made me reluctant to add extra horror to what he had witnessed, yet not knowing these details made me worry that I was unwittingly glossing them over.
To Anita’s credit, though she is devoutly Christian, she did not talk about death, God or Heaven. Maybe, unlike me, she held onto the hope that Langston was making up a story.
As Anita took Langston on the slides and we sang songs on our favorite swing, the weight of our impending walk home pressed on me; I didn’t want Langston to see the dead squirrels again. Maybe, I thought, one of my neighbors had buried them while we were gone.
No such luck. As we crossed back over High Street, Langston stopped in the middle of the highway and screamed. Just one lone shriek, but so different from the usual cry over small childhood disappointments. And he couldn’t move. I panicked, worried that a car would make a corpse out of him next. “Get out of the street!” I shouted. “We have to get out of the street! Now!” I tugged him to the safety of the curb, all the while thinking, “He is staring down at the face of death, and you’re yelling at him to move. What kind of a world is this?”
When we got home, I asked my neighbors to check out the crime scene for me. “Yeah, two squirrels died,” they said. “It’s O.K., Langston. They’re just squirrels.” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but agree. I had never harbored a particular fondness for squirrels, and I was grateful that Langston’s first encounter with death, aside from bugs, was witnessing the end of two squirrels, not the death of a relative, friend or pet. On the other hand, “just” squirrels? All of the adults standing there valued people over squirrels; only the child truly mourned them. I grieved for all the insects I had killed, the meat I would continue to eat. Yet I couldn’t bury the squirrels myself. I did not have the courage to get that close to the decay.
The day passed more or less as expected—nap, playtime, dinner, bath—but it was peppered with death. Langston kept replaying the scenario, running a plastic toy squirrel over with his tractor. I cringed, worrying that by allowing him to run over the squirrel again and again, I was condoning the violent act. But I was too stunned and fascinated by this development to stop him.
The reenactments led to more questions. “What is dead?” Langston asked.
“The squirrels can’t move anymore.”
“Why did they die?”
“They didn’t know you are supposed to look both ways and listen before you cross the street, and a person in a car hit them.” Was this turning into too much of a cautionary tale?
“The squirrels will be fine soon, right?”
“No,” I said, “they’re dead. They won’t get up anymore.”
I am an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. In West Virginia, where we lived, our community predominantly consisted of Baptists and Methodists. They would have told Langston that God had wanted this, or maybe even that the squirrels, having done nothing wrong, had gone to Heaven. At the very least, Anita might have ended the squirrels’ story with more than nothingness. I had been raised a Catholic but couldn’t remember how my parents had explained death to me as a small child. Had they ended our cat’s death with a trip to Heaven? As much as I didn’t believe such an ending was possible, I longed to give my son reassurance that it was all going to be O.K. somehow. Breaking my belief in death as an end would have been an act of betrayal on my part, but sticking to my simple story of nothing didn’t make me feel any better.
I emailed one of my high school English teachers, with whom I am still in touch fifteen years after I graduated and who remains one of my life and parenting inspirations. The subject of my email was “Explaining Death to a Very Young Person: a Parenting Qualification I Don’t Possess.” He wrote back with comforting words, reminding me that Langston’s first encounter “with the profound, the existential, and maybe even the ‘void,'” was not an easy concept to explain to such a young person. He recommended we watch an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a possible way into the experience. I was flooded with relief at the chance to approach the subject again with more than just my fumbling words.
Langston and I watched the “death” episode together. In it, Mr. Rogers discovers that one of his fish has died. He removes the fish from the tank and places it in a separate container of water with extra salt, explaining that he has heard it is a strategy for reviving a very sick fish. When that strategy fails, he explains that the method didn’t work this time and that the fish is “dead,” and he carefully buries it in the yard.
Langston asked to watch the episode many times over in the coming months. It gave him a definition for “death” to which he would turn again and again. He ran over his toy squirrel a few more times and created a scenario in which his stuffed monkey died from an unexplained cause and then came back to life again. Because Fred Rogers’s website said playing about death was “necessary and appropriate,” I kept my misgivings to myself. But I wondered how he could really learn about death if the story had a happy ending and the monkey lived again?
Two months later, on a visit to my friend Soxna’s house in Maine, Langston fell in love with her chickens. He loved to watch Soxna care for the hens and let them out of their coop and to help her feed them chicken feed, meal worms and Japanese beetles.
A few days after our return from Maine, Soxna wrote to tell me that Buffy, one of the chickens, had died. She had wandered away from the flock and been eaten by a fox. “Don’t tell Langston,” she added. I knew that Soxna was trying to protect Langston’s feelings, but I seized on the opportunity to speak further with him about death, one he didn’t have to witness.
“Langston, remember Soxna’s chickens?” I asked him later that day.
“Yes.” Of course, he remembered. He talked about them incessantly, and his toy chickens were his favorite farm animals.
“One of them died. Buffy died.”
“She walked away from the other chickens and a fox got her.”
“That’s not nice! Why did the fox get her?”
“He was hungry and needed the chicken to stay alive. We eat chickens sometimes to stay alive, too.”
He ignored the possibility that we weren’t any better than foxes. “The fox was bad. I don’t like foxes.”
Langston began a new play scenario. In it, his chickens walked together in a group. Then one chicken walked away and a plastic fox leaped out of his box of animals to attack it. “Run, Buffy! Run!” Langston shouted as the chicken clambered to safety. “She got away!”he told me triumphantly. “The chicken escaped from the fox!”
Langston tossed the toys to the floor and stood up. “Now I’ll be the fox,” Langston said, “and you be the chicken, Mommy!”
In a way, it was exactly what I deserved. Against my friend’s advice, I had alerted Langston to the chicken’s death. Now I was the chicken. The chase was pretty short because, when in pursuit, Langston easily outruns me. When he caught me, he made eating noises. Fortunately, the eating remained imaginary.
That night, while I lay beside him in bed, Langston asked, “What happens to you? Do you keep growing up like me?”
“Not exactly,” I said, “I guess I just get older.” I thought about the way our minds expand as they take in new information, and our emotions stretch as they envelop new experiences, but at the time, I wasn’t sure he would understand that kind of growth. Looking back, I wonder if I underestimated him.
“And then what?” Langston asked. “Do you become a kid again?”
“No,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want Langston to grapple with my eventual death just yet. Wait, I told myself. Wait until he explicitly asks whether you’ll die, and wait until he’s fully awake! Was that inability to face up to the possibility of my own death in front of my son wisdom or merely cowardice?
Day after day, Langston asked if Buffy was OK, needing me to remind him how she had wandered away from the others and had died. The toy chickens became the favorite toy, but Langston didn’t play any form of Fox and Chicken again; the fox had become so evil that it was banished to the depths of his toy chest where he couldn’t find it easily.
Later that month, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to stop Langston from jumping and rough-housing with me, but I didn’t want to shoo him off with a vague explanation about not feeling well. So despite all the online advice against it, I told Langston he couldn’t jump on me because I was expecting a baby.
Nine days after the positive pregnancy test, I miscarried. As my cramps sharpened and my body removed those few errant cells, I worried about what to tell my son about the baby who was no longer coming.
Sure enough, he asked me how the baby was doing the next morning. “I’m not having a baby anymore,” I told him slowly.
I choked up. “The baby … died.” I wanted to sob. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about a baby before it was formed enough.”
Langston climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. “Maybe you can make another one soon,” he said.
His childish optimism lightened me. It reminded me that mothering Langston teaches me as I go. I am learning that I don’t always need to end his narratives for him or even construct them. Rather, we will both participate in and observe each others stories for as long as we continue on this fortuitous journey together. Maybe the squirrels, Buffy, the chicken, and that almost-embryo would never be OK, but Langston was still young enough to end his stories—and mine—with the possibility of renewal.
Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, is part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series for adolescent emerging readers. Her essays have appeared on Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project, among other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. Learn more at http://www.kristenwitucki.com.