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Santa on Ice

One parent teaches her 3-year-old about death and the big guy

I have the only child in the world who's waiting for Santa to die. If we were in a holiday-themed Agatha Christie plot, Birdy would be the one hissing, "What's the matter, Mr. Claus — don't you feel well?" moments after dripping cyanide into his leek soup; she's practically tampering with the sleigh brakes. But the funny thing is, Birdy, 3, loves Santa. "Mama, do you know who my favorite person is?" she likes to ask, and you have to pretend to guess a dozen likely and unlikely candidates — Ben? Dr. Roche? Grandma? The mail lady? — before venturing "Santa?" "Yes!" she cries, "It's Santa!" He has, after all, been kind enough to fill her stocking with a blue pencil sharpener shaped like a dog, a packet of freeze-dried ice cream, frog socks, clementines, origami paper, and, narcissistically, a large chocolate replica of himself. What's not to love?

But — and here's where the plot thickens — Birdy also wishes she were Santa. From my college studies I remember Freud saying something like, you either love someone or want to be them; to blur the two together is to cause all kinds of trouble. And Birdy's got all kinds of trouble. Her identification with Santa is as removed from the bringing of joy to children as was the unreformed stocking-stealing Grinch's. "I want to be Santa when I grow up," she announces, "so that I can be magic and never die. I want Santa to die so that I can be Santa." "Well, Birdy," — this is Ben, her 7-year-old litigator-in-the-making brother — "that doesn't work. If Santa dies, then Santas die; then you would die, even if you were Santa." But Birdy isn't interested in the catch-22. Instead our passionate preschooler sums up all of human history, philosophy, medicine, art, and religion with her weeping response:

"But I don't want to die!"

It's not a developmental milestone you read about alongside "hops on one foot," but Birdy, like her brother when he was her age, is obsessed with death. "If I eat too much candy, I might die when I'm only 3!" she proclaims. ("That's right!" we say. I'm kidding — my husband and I really do try to clarify the distinction between cavities and, say, shuffling off your mortal coil.) "But where do you die to?" she asks sometimes, and it becomes clear that "die" is a real action verb for her, like jog or ski. ("Oh hey, would you die on over to the bakery for me and pick up a baguette?") But we know what she means. "Different people believe different things," we say, like hedging agnostic parents everywhere, and Birdy says, like their children everywhere must, "But what do you think?"

"You're not going to die for a really long time," we say. "Maybe even a hundred years." We don't tell her about her religious aunt's evocation of the afterlife as a kind of heavenly Club Med family vacation or even, in this moment, about our own diet-Buddhist ideas regarding karma. "We're not really sure," we stammer instead. Ben, meanwhile, has become a total rationalist. "I think you're just dead and gone," he says at the dinner table, chewing a piece of black olive pizza. "It's just your body in the ground." But when I ask him about his spirit — whether you're only your body — he falters. "What really makes you you?" I ask, pouring him more milk like Descartes' mom surely must have, and he gestures vaguely across his torso. "My beating heart? My mind? My nerves?" Philosopher and biologist in equal measure.

All the while Birdy's questions and comments about death fly out of her like kernels from a hot-air popper. "When I die I'll stop having birthdays," she offers, reasonably enough. "Will Charlie be dead by next Christmas?" she wants to know about Ben's goldfish. And then, because it's another profession she's got her vulture's eye on in case the whole Santa thing doesn't pan out: "Do swim teachers ever die?" "They do," I answer. Then, picturing her loitering by the pool with her grim reaper's cloak and scythe, I add, "But you could just be a swim teacher if you wanted. You don't have to wait for one to die." At a party one evening she eats some fruit, cries, "Oh these grapes — I died!" then tips slowly forward with her eyes fluttering. When I ask her what she means (I, for one, can never dissociate "grapes" from "choking hazard"), she says she doesn't know. Only later in the car do I remember a guest describing guacamole with the expression "to die for."

"Does it hurt when you die?" Birdy asks one day from her car seat. I look at Birdy's baby face in the rearview mirror and answer, "No, sweetie. It's just like going to sleep." "Um, well, Mama?" I have forgotten about the informant riding along with us. "It sort of depends how you die. I mean it could actually hurt a lot. Like if you were walking underneath a window, and ..." "Honey," I say. "Honey." And Ben shushes himself.

A person's entire life might be described, in fact, as peeling away the layers of our fantasy and denial about death. We teach our youngest children the basic contract of our lives on earth — that parents live until their children don't need them anymore, for example, and that children outlive their parents — and then, over time, we are forced, painfully, to revise this lesson. The father of a friend of our kids died recently, and Birdy is rightfully baffled. "Did he die because Samuel didn't need him anymore?" she wants to know, and when I answer her my voice sounds like a husk of itself. "Samuel will be okay," I say, "but he still needed his dad." "Will Samuel be sad for a hundred years?" she asks, and I say, "Probably."

When Birdy talks about dying, I picture her tiny and wizened, a white-fuzzed head nodding peacefully. I will have stepped clean off the planet by then, like a person boarding a train to nowhere. This is not always what I picture, though. Given one wish, every parent I know would choose global justice or world peace. But given two, we'd all wish for our children to outlive us. "If I died, you would miss me!" Birdy announces cheerfully, and before I can fit the enormity of my agreement into words, Ben laughs. "That's right, Birdy! And besides — who would fill our stockings?"

About the Author
As Catherine Newman, author of Waiting for Birdy, was finishing this piece, her (nonviolent) daughter declared: "If you shooted someone when they were already dead, you wouldn't need to worry about them drowning." Indeed.

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