This past weekend, my five-year-old son, Elliot, asked me if he was going to die.
Those words carry weight. "Daddy, am I going to die?"
The tears came soon after, big eye-welling tears because somewhere in his five-year-old brain, he'd made the connection. Real horror came to my son, and nothing could touch him in quite the same way again. Maybe he'd caught just enough of the news or someone talking about the news to shake his frame. Maybe not. The knowing comes for all of us but in different ways.
I remember being five. I remember the day an ambulance came and carried my father away, how my mother didn't come home until nearly midnight, and how my brother spoke of dropping out of school and going to work. It was early fall 1980--the beginning of my brother's senior year. A brain tumor had come for my father.
I remember other things about being young: my grandparents staying with us while Mom was away with Dad. There were trips to see neurologists and CAT scans and other things which seem like bloodletting and leeches now, but delivered state-of-the-art medical care in 1980. Dad changed. He aged faster and vomited often from the cocktail of medications and radiation. He died nine years later, catatonic, in the same hospital where he had been diagnosed.
I also remember how I cried when I thought Kermit the Frog was going to die at the end of The Muppet Movie. Somehow, my five-year-old brain knew, just like Elliot's. Innocence evaporated. Poof. And no horror is truly greater than the loss of that childish innocence. Once it's gone, there is no return. That has always haunted me more than anything. It's the true darkness in the basement, the stranger lurking outside, or the danger in the woods. For me, it wound around the thing which ate my father from the inside out.
My son faces new monsters. We've done horrible things to each other. We've built an artificial world with social media used to insult, divide, and destroy each other. We've killed each other with startling efficiency in Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown... All that horror, all that innocence lost. We can't go back, and I'm not sure how we can go forward. Where would we go?
What does a five-year-old do after asking, "Daddy, am I going to die?" Where can he go to be safe again?
I have no magic to restore the world--I can't even change what my son now knows. But we play together. We decorate the yard for Halloween and bake cookies at Christmas. We take trips and awe at mountains, hunting for a glimpse of illusive big-horned sheep. We read books together and hug often. We both know, and that knowing makes us love hard.
And love, in the end, is the only thing that really matters.