A few months ago Bear’s nursery teacher mentioned that he had become obsessed with death. This puzzled me, he hadn’t said anything at home and nobody he knows has ever died. A short while after this Bear’s class visited a Matisse exhibition. At the end of their tour the curator asked if anyone had any questions. ‘Is Matisse dead?’ asked Bear. When it was confirmed that yes, Matisse was dead, Bear followed up with, ‘was he squashed by a tractor?’
I blame the moles. A few months ago our fields were infested with them. So Andrew lay traps. And Bear went with him to help, and then, a few days later, we all went to empty them. I think we’ve already established that I can’t tell the difference between my own children and small animals, so when I saw their tiny faces, with their little paws held up to their cheeks, I don’t need to tell you that I was a lot less cool about this than Bear. But this is beside the point. I didn’t really connect the moles to the death obsession until a friend of mine pointed out that killing small animals with his dad and pulling their corpses out of the traps might make some kind of impression on a four year old boy.
Recently a friend’s hamster died. ‘That’s really sad,’ I said to Bear. ‘No it’s not,’ he answered, ‘she can just get another one. When is nanna going to die?’
And yesterday Bear refused to go nursery until I promised that we could visit a lamb that died the night before, when he got home that afternoon. So we did. It was one of triplets, it’s brother and sister had survived. And I came face to face with my own fear of death. I really didn’t want to have to look at this hard, mummified little body. But I didn’t want Bear to see my squeamishness. And once I crouched down to Bear’s height, and started to examine the body it was actually OK; it was just a body. Bear was fascinated; Andrew explained what the umbilical cord was, were the blood was, and what had probably happened to it (it was born in the middle of the night, so we didn’t see it come out).
And Bear asked, as he often does, if he will die. And when I explained that yes, he will, but not for a really, really long time he asked, ‘But how will I come back to Bear?’ And I couldn’t answer that so I told him I didn’t know. Then I tried to remember a really lovely, poetic way a friend of mine had explained death to her kids, something about stars in the sky, but we were freezing in a barn, and bear was prodding the dead lamb’s yellow body through a piece of cardboard sacking to see what it felt like, and I thought he doesn’t really need to know much else; he already has a far better grip on this than I do.