When E was a toddler, I held my breath and shielded his eyes from any hint of death that slunk into our lives. If I saw a dead bird or squirrel on the sidewalk, I crossed the street immediately, shoving the stroller onto the grassy extension and down the curb. I glossed over it in the few books we had that mentioned it, surreptitiously gathering the pages where I knew it lived between the fingers of my right hand as I turned the page. Then one afternoon E turned his silent attention toward a motionless fly on the bathroom floor, and I thought: this is it. We stared at the fly together in the dim bathroom, just barely illuminated by the weak sunlight on the tile. E asked why it wasn’t moving, and I told him that I thought it was dead. “Dead?” he questioned–and I explained that his little fly body had stopped working and would never work again. But I was wrong: the fly buzzed suddenly and flew away, saving me from further explanation.
The first literary mention of death that I didn’t gloss over when reading to E was in William Joyce’s The Leaf Men, a book about an ailing grandmother and her beloved garden, both of whom escape death with the help of a brave troop of “doodle bugs,” better known in our house as roly-polies, bugs that delight J and that have been the first dead things that she’s ever seen. Joyce’s book is about littleness in the face of death: the doodle bugs, “tiny of body, but brave of heart,” and the Long-Lost Toy, a “little metal man,” fight against the grandmother’s demise and the murderous intentions of the Spider Queen. The doodle bugs succeed in summoning the Leaf Men, those “gardeners of a grand and elfin sort,” who restore the garden and return the Long-Lost Toy to the grandmother, who wakes, herself restored, the next morning. But just before the Leaf Men arrive, the evil Spider Queen attacks the roly-polies. She is quickly dispatched by the Leaf Men, “shot…through the heart” with an arrow made of thistle. It is a startlingly violent moment in a book that’s otherwise quite gentle–and it was the first death that E heard me read out loud.
Bugs have given my kids–and many other kids, I’d guess–their first glimpses of death. And though the insect murder in The Leaf Men is stark, its satisfying violence replaces the far more expected and terrible death that the book stops short of depicting: that of the grandmother. The Spider Queen is the worst kind of death personified: unmoved by faith, goodness, or logic, and selfishly ravenous. She “sneers” that “The Leaf Men are not real,” and she kills both for sport and satiety: just before her murder, the narrator remarks that “doodle bug bowling was just what the Spider Queen hungered for.” No explanation is given for her hatred of the Long-Lost Toy or the doodle bugs; she kills without rhyme or reason. Reading the scene of this malevolent arachnid’s murder to E felt acceptable, even necessary. Maybe speaking the words felt like vanquishing the version of death that I feared would grow ever more monstrous in his imagination, each time he encountered a dead fly, or squirrel, or bird, or–one day–a dead person he loved. I love The Leaf Men because it saved us both from the literary experience of such a death: the grandmother’s survival at the end of the book, like our fly’s bathroom floor resurrection, was a huge relief. But I love the book more because the experience of real death isn’t wholly absent from its pages. The grandmother is old, and frail, and if E read this book now, I’m sure he would predict her death, just as I did when I first read it. The grandmother may be saved by utterly fantastic means, but the possibility of her death is nevertheless faced, and it’s faced by the smallest of the small–by those who seem, as E once did to me, as though they’d be the least likely to comprehend the awfulness of death. The doodle bugs, encouraged by the Long-Lost Toy, believe that the Leaf Men will save their beloved garden and its gardener, just as so many of us believe our beloved dead will be saved, somehow, by a being hardly less fantastic than the Leaf Men. The roly-polies have faith, and it gives them strength.
Yet the grandmother is also saved by the Long-Lost Toy: delivering him into the grandmother’s sleeping hand is the final act of the Leaf Men. “My little metal man!” she exclaims upon waking, “I’d almost forgotten you!” But she remembers him, as a gift from her father to “watch over” her, and she heals. The Long-Lost Toy is a material token of the old lady’s past, and most especially, of a person who loved her deeply and died. He carries a valuable memory when its owner loses sight of it, temporarily, and he inspires others to have faith, to act, to save.
The Long-Lost Toy is a little metal sign of all the memories that get lodged in the cracks of our lives after the people and things they signify are gone, and of how wonderfully overwhelming these memories can be when something shakes them loose. We have a dear neighbor who has known our children since we moved to this neighborhood, when I was pregnant with J, and now he is dying. A list of every whimsical trinket he’s ever given my children would fill many pages. I could never remember each one, but I count on their hidden existence in our home, ready to jog the memory in E’s mind of looking out our front window some Saturday morning and seeing a surprise batch of garage sale toys waiting for him and J on the porch, carefully chosen by our neighbor, with their distinct interests and preferences in mind.
I count on these objects, because E wants nothing to do with processing this real life death right now: when we told him what was going on, finally, he immediately started waving his hands and said “Stop! Stop telling me about this! I don’t want to talk about this anymore! I don’t want to think about it anymore!” J asked if we would still be able to visit his house after he was gone, her thoughts already searching, perhaps, in the most likely place for traces of the man whose rambling stories lulled her to sleep when she was an infant and who delighted in hoisting her up onto a cinder block to show her the colonies of roly-polies wriggling around in his massive compost bins.
When I read to E about the Spider Queen’s death, he was probably not much more than two. Since then he’s heard about many literary deaths, and seen countless dead bugs, birds, and squirrels. Most recently, we read together about the death of Jack, the beloved brindled bulldog who trots faithfully beneath the Ingalls family wagon across the prairies of the Little House series. In the opening chapters of the fourth book, By The Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies, and in doing so, becomes the book’s first and saddest symbol of its pervasive motif: growing up means inevitable loss. Jack is everything the Spider Queen is not: utterly faithful, loving, and innocent, and the chapter that details his death is as detailed and anguished as the scene of the Spider Queen’s death is spare and satisfying. Wilder’s narrator dwells on the signs of physical pain and age that Laura sees in Jack’s body, and on the regrets she feels about neglecting him in the last few years of his life. The discovery of his stiff body, his burial, and the emptiness Laura feels after he is really gone–E and I were spared none of these things as we read. I marveled at each grim new detail, surprised but grateful to find such sadness frankly described: E would watch his Laura bear this sadness, and survive. We read this chapter during our usual reading time before school, after everyone is dressed, lunches are packed, and it’s only us, waiting to walk to school. On this morning, after the initial flurry of shoe-putting-on and last minute additions to his backpack, he stopped just before the door, his eyes cast down and his delicate fingers picking at the fabric of the sofa. I asked him what was wrong, though I knew, and he said, “Jack.”
“I know.” I said. “It’s really sad.” He agreed, and we walked out the door together and into the sunshine.