09/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

You Can Sing This Song When I'm Gone

In a story my older son wrote, a volcano asks a question of a flamingo, a camel, a beehive and an okapi: "What month are you gonna die in?" He's been thinking about death for a year now. Last August he gazed at the waves from under a beach umbrella, his face growing into the angles of handsomeness, and asked me: "Where is your mother?" He'd never really asked why he has three grandparents instead of four. (They say with the hard questions, you should wait for kids to ask, not tell them things they aren't ready to absorb.)

It was Finding Nemo that confronted him with death, absurdly enough. The mother clownfish is devoured by a barracuda while the father fish screams in horror. We explained why Nemo's mother was gone, why she could not come back. Questions followed ("Do hippos die? Do porcupines die?"); jarring comments in restaurants ("Those people are eating a dead lobster!"); and a confession: "I don't wanna die." Hearing all this, his younger brother became curious: "What does dying mean?" "It means when people don't move anymore forever," came the wise answer. So now the younger one insists, against overwhelming evidence, that it is not Nemo's mother who gets eaten but the father fish, Marlin, instead. As he tells it, the mother escapes unscathed while Marlin emerges alive from a spout in the barracuda to fulfill the movie's epic quest.

A movie sparked my own childhood fear and questions about death too. On TV I saw a cowboy shot in a town square, saw his little boy run to clutch his father's fallen body. That night at bedtime I told my mother I wanted to be buried in the same coffin with her when I died. However startled she might have been by my wish, she assured me I'd outgrow it before anyone was in a coffin. She white-lied that "people die when they are very old"--a welcome simplification, as I was plenty scared of death even in the far future.

Cross-legged on beach towels with my own boys, the sun too bright on the sand around us, I explained about their absent grandmother. "When she was old," I said, "she got sick, so sick that she died." I quickly added, "I was a grownup when it happened," to tell them I'd had her my whole childhood--an uneasy effort to postpone their fear of losing us and of death itself. While it is true I was a young adult when my mother died, she should have had many years more of life, for her sake and for mine.

My sons were quiet. Then the younger one, sand pail in hand, said with nervous generosity: "I want to get you a new mother." I looked into his soft, sun-flecked face. "I don't want a new mother. People only have one mother and she will always be my mother." I knew this portrait of an unseen yet enduring person made little sense to a small child.

As our talk was ending, I saw the lifeguards run to their tall bleached-white chair. In unison they took to the water, paddling on rescue boards and a boat toward a capsized kayak quite far out. The adults on the beach watched gravely from under their rainbow-striped umbrellas, betraying nothing to the children around them. The rescuers converged in the water and hauled a figure back to the sand. In the distance I saw them kneel over a burly but immobile body. They examined him, rubbed his torso, leaned in close to his ear. Everyone was still. Then in one abrupt motion, the man leapt to his feet. He slapped the backs of the lifeguards and jogged off toward the parking lot. "It was just a drill," I said incredulously, very quietly, to myself. "Just a drill."

The great sadness of death and other hardships; the stark adjustments of life--the side of things I had just broached with my children--what we'd seen on the beach did not belong to that. It was not even a close call; barely a false alarm. It was like a dream of threat one wakes from, heart thumping, to realize that everyone is safe after all. The fanged monsters in Pixar movies and Sendak books are like that. Those Wild Things that haunt my kids are just a drill for them. From a distance they watch somebody go through a frightening ordeal and arrive at safety in the end, though maybe not unscathed. Their real-life losses have been mercifully second-hand too, new as they still can seem.

"You can sing this song when I'm gone" is from James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes".