Murky Waters

 

This past Saturday Beatrix and I, along with my mom and Milo in the stroller, walked 2.4 miles for a fundraiser called Walk for Water. It was organized by 20 Liters, a non-profit that helps raise money to supply water filters for people living in Rwanda. 

It was cold and rainy, and I had forgotten Beatrix’s hat, but I asked her to walk anyway. We first had to walk 1.2 miles to a drain pipe leading to a ditch at the side of a road, where we would fill empty bottles with dirty water, then walk 1.2 miles back to the starting point where that water would be filtered. 

Along the walk route there were signs that 20 Liters had posted, with alarming facts about access to clean water.

“Did you know,” I asked Beatrix as we walked with a crowd of 500 down the sidewalk, “that one out of every eight people in our world don’t have clean water? That means that there are a lot of people who don’t get to drink clean water like we do.”

“Mom,” Beatrix whined, “I’m getting tired.” We had walked about three-quarters of a mile.

“I know, but I want you to try to keep going. I think it must be very hard for the boys and girls in Rwanda too, but this is something they have to do every day.” I didn’t want to make her feel guilty, but I did want to use this as an opportunity to teach empathy, something even I still struggle to learn.

“You’re doing a great job,” my mom said, giving the stroller to me and taking Beatrix by the hand. “Why don’t we skip? That will be fun.”

We passed another sign.

“Wow, Beatrix, those jerry cans – ” I pointed to one of the yellow 20 liter jugs someone was carrying, “those are what moms in Rwanda use to carry their water. One of those weighs forty-four pounds. That’s more than you weigh!”

“Whoah,” Beatrix said with awe.

There were more signs along the path, which Mom and I read silently to ourselves.

“Dirty water kills more people than all forms of violence including war.” “Every 20 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease.”

“Should I read this to her?” Mom asked, pointing to the sign that read “Diarrhea kills more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I think she needs to know so she understands why we’re doing this.” But how do we explain that to a child?

Beatrix understood death, to the degree any three-year-old could. However, we had only talked about it when it concerned older, sick people. But it was something I felt couldn’t be ignored, and I didn’t want to be afraid to talk about death with my daughter. When it came up in conversations before and she was nearby, I usually didn’t spell out words or try to shield her from it. I tried to explain as much as I could.

Which wasn’t easy. I still had my own questions about death. Is heaven real? Will we have the same bodies or new ones, and if we do have bodies at all, what age will my body be? Because my body at eighteen was kind of nice. Is heaven a place, or is it here, on earth, and God is here too, and all things are good again, just like in the beginning?

But beyond those questions was the real question. Is God real? It’s a question I think everyone struggles with.

Mom and I read Beatrix the signs, trying our best to put them in terms she could understand.

“Did you know that diarrhea kills more children than a lot of other diseases?” Mom asked her.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” I added. “Dirty water can make kids sick, so sick that they die.”

Beatrix was quiet for a moment. “It is sad,” she said.

“But we’re doing something about that,” I reassured her. “We’re raising money to send to those people so they can have machines that make their water clean again.”

She didn’t have too many questions about the things we told her. But when my mom said, “We are so blessed to live in this country. God’s really blessed us, hasn’t he?” Beatrix responded with “God didn’t bless the people in Rwanda.”

Oh. Well. “No, no, no, I don’t think that’s true,” I replied. “God is using us as the blessing. He wants us to love each other and help people that are in need.”

“Like we’re helping the kids that have the dirty water, right?”

“Right.”

So, we were good. I was so proud of my daughter. She did walk the entire 2.4 miles, even though she was tired and cold. Most of all, I was proud of the fact that she was learning to care for others, even people she’s never met before. And that whole thing about children dying – well, we would save that conversation for when she had questions about it.

Which, as it turns out, was just a few days later.

Wednesday, Stewart and I took dinner to friends who had just had their second baby, a girl named Jillian. Beatrix and their older son Miles played together, we ate and talked, and I got to hold baby Jillian – a pocket baby, her mom calls her, because she’s so tiny. It was great to see my friend adjusting so well to having a second child.

On the way home, Stewart and I got into a conversation about a book he was reading, an eccentric and quirky dramatic novel. He summarized the plot for me.

“The main character is divorced and runs a department store in a small town. His daughter is very sick and he’s been taking her everywhere to different doctors, but no one can figure out what’s wrong. They finally tell him that he should just take her home to live out the rest of her life as best she could, because she’ll die soon.”

Stewart continued to describe the book. One of the characters was a wealthy man who wanted to buy the department store. The wealthy man’s sister was a shut-in who wanted to help the main character. There was a mysterious man in town who said he was a traveling salesman, but no one believed him.

In the middle of Stewart describing the characters, Beatrix interrupted from the back seat.

“Will I see baby Jillian again?”

“Yes, soon,” I replied, looking at her in the rear-view mirror. “We’ll go over sometime when it’s warmer and you and Miles can play outside.”

“But I wanted to stay there with baby Jillian. What if she’s not there?”

I wondered if Beatrix thought babies could come and go as they please in and out of their mommy’s bellies. So I answered, in my infinite wisdom, “Oh, baby Jillian will be here forever. She’ll be Miles’ sister forever.”

“But what if baby Jillian dies?”

Oh. Shit.

“Let’s not worry about that,” Stewart said, and I followed with “She’s a healthy baby, and she’s not going to die. It was a good question though.”

Stewart continued talking about the book. Beatrix fell asleep.

We got home and woke the children – Milo so he could take some puffs on his inhaler and take his allergy medicine, and Beatrix so she could use the bathroom and brush her teeth. Stewart carried Beatrix to her bed, cranky and crying, and I sat in the recliner with Milo to help him fall back to sleep. Stewart calmed Beatrix by singing “Guten Abend, Guten Nacht,” the German version of Brahm’s Lullaby, then he went downstairs.

“I really hope I get to see baby Jillian again,” Beatrix’s voice was barely audible.

“You will, sweetie. It won’t be that long. I just want to let Jillian’s mommy rest a little. Sometimes that takes a while after someone has a new baby.”

“But what if baby Jillian gets sick and the doctors don’t know what to do and she dies?” she asked with a sob.

“Oh, honey.” I paused, not knowing how to answer this very important question. I took a deep breath and dove in. “I held baby Jillian and she was fine. She’s very healthy. I don’t know everything for sure, but I think Jillian is going to live a long and healthy life.”

“You do?”

“I do. Did you ask that question because you heard Daddy talking about his book?”

“Yes. The daughter in his book was sick and was going to die.”

“Yes, but that was just a book. It wasn’t a true story.” But children do die. Do I want to have this conversation with my daughter, now?

I decided to ask a question. “What happens when people die?”

“They go to be with God.”

“Mmm-hmm. And do you know what God is like?”

“No.”

I didn’t expect that response. We’ve talked a lot about Jesus and God, but mostly about what Jesus taught us – to be kind and giving and loving to each other. Not so much about what he, or God, is like.

“Well,” I said, “God is like a warm hug. He loves us. He’s like the sun shining on us, making us happy and warm.” I believe there is more to God, but I figured those were images to which Beatrix could relate.

“But does God love babies? Do babies go to heaven if they get sick and die?”

“Oh, honey, yes. God loves babies so much. He created them. I think God holds babies and rocks them and loves them just like their moms and dads do.”

We talked a bit more, about what heaven is like, and that God loves us and created us, so he wants us to be with him when we die.

“But that doesn’t mean we aren’t sad when people die,” I said. “It is very sad because we miss them, but we’ll see them again in heaven, and that will be a really great thing.”

“We will?”

“Yup.” I paused, looked down at Milo, breathing softly, his eyes fluttering closed. “Beatrix? Are you feeling better now that we talked?”

“Yeah, but I still really want to see baby Jillian again.”

“I know, kiddo. We will, soon. I’ll come give you a hug after I lay Milo down, and we can say a prayer if you want.”

“Okay,” she said.

Five minutes later Milo was in his crib and I went to Beatrix’s bedside. She was fast asleep.

“I love you,” I whispered. “And God loves you, too.”

My little girl was growing up, and I was so in awe of her. I never realized before I became a parent how many questions for which I would have to be an authority. At times I’ve answered “I don’t know,” but this time I found the right words. At least I hoped they were the right words. I was swimming in the murky waters of motherhood, faith and spirituality, but for a moment they became clear.

And in turn, I learned more about my own faith in the process.

Such tough questions from my little girl!  How DO we answer questions like these, especially when we’re talking to children who may have a hard time with such abstract concepts?  Have you had to talk to your children about death and God and heaven?  How did you respond to their questions?

Oh, and, if you feel so inclined, you can donate online to 20 Liters by clicking here.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 19:50:26

    I love how God used His Spirit to whisper in your ears the right words for your little girl’s heart to understand. I know it’s Him when the love and words just come tumbling out of my mouth. There will be other discussions. Some we are prepared for, some not. “Where was I before I was born,” is the one I most remember. The answer was,”He knew you before the beginning of time, before He created you in that secret place. He knew what you would be and who the perfect parents would be for you. And He has a very special plan for you. He wants you to use your unique gifts to glorify Him. He shines when you shine.”

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  2. MichelleD
    Apr 23, 2011 @ 11:15:04

    Bless you for tackling the tough stuff! I’m not a parent but I cringe when I hear that 6, 7, even 8 year olds have never learned that their gerbil is not 5 years old but only 2, and it’s actually the 3rd gerbil they’ve had, not the first. A couple hundred years ago we couldn’t keep death from our kids and they knew that, sad as it was, it was just another part of life.
    You are such a wonderful mum!!!

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    • lorixmom
      Apr 23, 2011 @ 13:10:10

      I know sometimes we just don’t want kids to worry about things (see my above reply to Norma). But at other times we have to address it. Last year a good friend of the family died, someone that Beatrix would have noticed was gone. She was not quite three at the time, but we explained it as best we could, and I think she understood as best she could.

      You’re right, it’s just another part of life, one that people (adults and children alike) don’t discuss enough, in my opinion.

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  3. Norma
    Apr 23, 2011 @ 08:47:57

    Children pick up so much. We never imagine what they hear us say that might raise questions in their little minds. Sounds like you did a good job. You don’t need to answer any more than they are asking at the time. Love you!

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    • lorixmom
      Apr 23, 2011 @ 13:04:45

      We are really having to watch what we say around her. I did actually spell out D-I-E the other day (the day after all her questions), and I looked at Stewart and said, “You know, sometimes she just needs to be a kid and not worry about all this stuff.” But normally, I just try to be straightforward with her.

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  4. Ava
    Apr 23, 2011 @ 07:52:43

    “God is like a warm hug. He loves us. He’s like the sun shining on us, making us happy and warm.”

    Amanda,
    This is beautiful. You have just tackled on the life’s most difficult parenting challenge with elegance.
    I love the way you described God to your daughter. My husband and I want to raise our own daughter to care about others, volunteer and be a philanthropist. It is very difficult to imagine how we will answer these difficult questions once she is old enough to ask them. I’ll have to look to you for wisdom!
    -Ava

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