“What happens when your heart breaks?” my five-year-old asked while we were driving home late one night.
“Well, usually when people say that, they just mean someone is really sad about something,” I replied in an attempt to divert a conversation I didn’t really want to have.
“But what if it really breaks? Like stops working?”
I hesitated for a few moments, then opted for truth. “If you’re heart stops, then you die,” I said.
“But that doesn’t happen, right? No people on earth die?”
“Actually, yes. People do die sometimes.”
I was feeling increasingly uncertain of whether this was the proper path to take, but I had painted myself into a corner.
“Will I die?”
Even before this seemingly random conversation, an amorphous heaviness had been lingering over me for days if not weeks or months. In the constant motion and swirling chaos that is life with three young children, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. When it feels as if someone or something always needs your attention, thoughts of life and death and growth and change tend to fade into the twilight. Since the birth of our third child less than a year ago, the constant busyness had successfully obscured my peripheral vision.
However, much like the weather in my home state of Florida, my mental state, particularly when it comes to my children, can be very fickle. One moment the sky is filled with brilliant sun and fluffy white clouds, and suddenly, a soft breeze off the ocean gives way to grumbling thunderheads. The change happens so rapidly that it can be hard to tell the precise moment when the good weather gives way to the bad.
So it was for me several weeks ago. One day as I watched my 5-year-old and 2-year-old playing together happily I felt something shift inside me. I looked on with a smile as they chattered away. I remember they were extremely excited about something. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking how trivial and mundane was the object of their exuberance.
At that point, I noticed my psychic sun was ducking behind the clouds. I began to think about how fleeting this childlike wonder is, which led, inevitably, to deeper thoughts about the relentless passage of time and the slow but steady deterioration of childhood naivety and innocence.
It is this abiding paradox of parenting that I have yet to get my head around. Parents of young children so often yearn for them to grow up and become more self-sufficient because the early years of dependence are so physically and emotionally demanding, yet, when we take a wider view, their growing up often leave us feeling sad.
We celebrate their accomplishments and achievements, their first words and first steps, but at the same time, we shed a tear for the babies they once were. Because as our children grow, while they gain so much, they also lose little personality quirks that we come to love and cherish. The way their little fists rub at their eyes when they are tired or the way they mispronounce a word in the most adorable fashion.
Perhaps even more daunting than this constant sense of loss is the existential dread that, for me at least, has become even more powerful and cumbersome as my family continues to grow. As a childfree adult, I sometimes fell prey to the sting of anxiety and depression, but I usually felt confident in my ability to fight back, largely because I only had myself to care for. Like a pesky counterpuncher in the boxing ring, though, melancholia never gives up. It continues to probe for weaknesses in your defenses. For me, and I suspect many other parents, my weakness is my children.
Now when the dark clouds gather, not only do I worry for myself, I worry for my kids. When they toss and turn at night and the blanket of my protection can’t cover them completely, the reality of the world and its dangers and its inexorable sadness will begin to creep in. In those moments, it is to me and my wife that our children turn first for guidance and counsel. I hope I will be able to help them. I have my doubts, though, largely because I have proven to be a somewhat unreliable caretaker of my own psyche.
However, perhaps I can take solace in the possibility that I might still have a little time left to figure things out.
“Will I die?” my son asked in the car that night.
“Well, bud,” I replied. “Someday, a long, long time from now, you probably will. But it’s not something to worry about now.”
The car was silent for several seconds except for the music on the radio and the road noise seeping in; his little brother and sister were sound asleep in their car seats as he mulled over my answer.
“Daddy. I really want to play on my iPad when we get home.”