It all began with the dead hummingbird.
The niece and nephews, here for their annual summer visit, came rushing up the deck stairs. George, who is eight and the eldest boy, had something in his hand and his brothers and sister wanted to see it.
When George held out his hand to me, there was a hummingbird lying in his palm.
“It died, Aunt Sa,” George said in his serious voice. “Can we bury it?”
We had to; otherwise, the kids’ jostling to hold the bird was going to tear the poor thing to pieces. Or else it would get dropped and the dog would run off with it.
“Yes, let’s bury it under the phlox,” I said and fetched a small shovel from the garden shed.
I also scooped up some rose petals to place over the body before pushing the dirt back in the hole while niece Mimi, 8, appeared with a stone to mark the grave. Five minutes later, George asked me, “Is it bones yet?”
Children ask the toughest questions. How to answer something like that? I hesitate because I worry about providing more details than a child can handle or perhaps more than their parents want them to know. Except that my sister is open and honest with her children so there’s little I can say, even swear, that they won’t have heard already.
If we’re going to shield our children from bad things, death and dying shouldn’t be one of them. It’s unavoidable, for one thing, and for another, children are far more thoughtful and resilient when it comes to accepting reality than many adults.
This is the argument for respecting the natural intelligence of children, for not putting our grownup, and grown into, neuroses on to them. Children are inquisitive, fearless, and capable of experiencing a full range of emotion. Sadness is a part of life and a healthy, compassionate emotion to possess at any age.
Later the same day, the kids found a mouse that the cat had killed. As my youngest nephew Vinny, who is four, waited for the hole to be dug, he held the red plastic shovel that was carrying the body.
“I’m so-wee,” he murmured, bent over the mouse. “I wuv you.”
When he went to kiss the mouse, however, I stepped in. Even Aunt Sa knows the limits to a child’s expression of feelings.
Ever been to a funeral for a mouse? There is a eulogy (everyone talking at the same time), there is a headstone, and there are bubbles. It was all very heartfelt and felt more like a celebration of life.
We ended up burying two more bodies that day. I’m glad I’d warned the kids that sometimes the cat eats the head of a mouse because when they found a headless mouse, they took it in stride and in ink; we now have several rocks scattered through the flower gardens with “RIP” and a mouse face drawn on them.
“No more interments until next summer, okay?” I finally declared and went inside to pour myself a restorative glass of red wine.
A couple of days later, a friend came over.
“Why is there is stone with RIP and a mouse face drawn on it sitting by the garage door?” she wanted to know.
I didn’t really have an answer for that question. Just in case, I suppose. Just in case.
By the way, when I die, I want bubbles blown over my grave, too, and by everyone, not just the children.