"What is 'alive'?"
I had opened my mouth to answer her, but no words came forth. Stumped, I shut my jaw, thought for a moment, and tried again to give her a definition. Nothing.
We'd been outside on a beautiful Spring day enjoying the sunshine and green grass. She'd brought over to me a wilted and dried up flower, wondering out loud if it would continue to grow bigger.
"No," I'd casually replied. "It's dead because it got picked."
"Dead?" She pondered, furrowing her brow as she tried to understand.
"Yeah. You know. It's not alive anymore."
She had stopped and thought about that for a moment. Then she looked up at me and asked:
"What is 'alive?'"
I was completely ill-equipped to answer her.
As the mother of two young girls, I have prepared myself for many things: For the first time one of them comes home having learned a curse word. Prepared for how to answer to them when they ask me where babies come from. Prepared for the surprise shaved head, earring or tattoo . Prepared to completely go ape on the first boy that breaks their hearts.
But this, I was completely unprepared for.
How do you begin to explain the ideas of life and death? Dead versus alive? To a 3 year old, nonetheless? Grasping the idea of one demands an understanding of the other. Dead means no longer alive. And alive? Alive is the state of not being dead. I take for granted the complexity of thoughts and the ability I have to understand them.
I had looked down at my daughter, so innocent and new to life. In her short time on this earth, she has not yet known true pain and suffering. How do I begin to explain to her what it means to grieve? That not only do flowers die, but people die as well? They will leave us in this world, a void that we have to accept. How do I explain that death can be sad? That we will never again get to see those who are no longer alive? That sometimes our hearts will break because we miss them so much?
How do I explain to a child that sometimes death can be a relief? As you've watched someone suffer for years from cancer, dying a slow death, there is a sweet burden lifted in the moment they are taken from this world and no longer in pain? As you've watched someone lead a long life that has been unfair and unjust, there is relief in knowing that whatever life they live after they die will undoubtedly be better than the one they lived here on Earth?
I had knelt down next to her, her small hand gripping the conversation starter. The weighty discussion that had yet to be had was a stark contrast against the glowing streams of sunlight and vibrantly blue sky. Today was the the tangible definition of alive.
How do I explain to her what it means to be alive? To have breath in our lungs, thoughts in our minds, emotions in our hearts? To have the hope that, when we go to sleep after a fun-filled day, we will wake to the morning light and start anew? That being alive means we grow, we change, we mature? That we have second chances?
How do I explain the concept of what it means to truly live? That we are meant to do more than merely survive? That life is full of passion. Adventure. Pain. Joy. Sadness. We will fail. We will succeed. We will learn. We will be scared. We will overcome.
She is so small. Yet, she will lead such a big life. She will make friends, she will scrape her knees, she will create beautiful things. She will fall in love, she will have her heart broken. She will know joy and pain. She will learn and grow. She will one day understand what it means to die, and grasp the immensity of what it means to really live.
In her short three years, she has yet to know a real loss. In the course of a year, she has lost two great-grandmothers, but they were peripherals in her young life. She did not see them every day, and still lacks the reality that they won't be at the next birthday party or holiday celebration. She speaks of them from time to time as though they still are, and we do our best to give her truth without squashing her spirit. And perhaps she is wiser than all of us: treating Death with a lightness and freedom, taking it in while not letting it hold her back. Knowing that even in their absence, those she has lost are still part of who she is and who she will become.
I did not adequately explain the life cycle of a flower that day, nor did I impart the philosophical truths behind being alive. I shied away from sharing the hard to accept fact that one day our hearts will stop beating in our chests and we will be ushered into eternity. I'm not sure I remember exactly what I said to her that day, but I know it involved fumbling over the idea that alive means we can breathe and grow. And for her, that was enough to satisfy her questioning mind.
I, on the other hand, was left with many questions and a new appreciation for the job we have as parents to present the world honestly. I know one day in the future we will engage in this conversation once again. The circumstances will most likely be heavier, and we will be talking about a more valuable loss. She will be able to comprehend more and feel more deeply.
And it will be my job to come prepared with a better answer.