10/05/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Carie's Ghost

Our favorite babysitter unexpectedly dropped dead of leukemia at 37, and I'm struggling to explain it to my 4-year-old who already fears death.

Her fear started in her second year of Montessori preschool. Right before bed she would ask, What if I die in my sleep? Given that the Montessori method urges independent thought, it's not unusual she voiced her concern. The subject matter, however, seemed to come from nowhere. No one in our network had died, not even a neighbor's pet. Each night I tried new, comforting answers but depended most on the refrain that allowed her eyes to finally droop: We all die one day, but you probably won't die for a long time. Mom and Dad will do everything we can to keep you safe.

This answer led to longer conversations in the daytime. How will we know when we're going to die? Driving to school, I'd point to things and talk about how life ends. Flower gardens dry up at the end of summer. Squirrels and cats get old just like people. We talked about car accidents and poison mushrooms and, because we live in the Chicago area, tornadoes. This discourse carried us under three elevated train tracks and finally to the carpool queue in the school alley, where I'd try to change the subject to the projects awaiting her in the classroom. But one winter afternoon while we idled in the queue, her questions persisted.

"Will you die before me? Where will you go?"

I hesitated. As a lapsed Catholic, offering my default images of God, Heaven or an Afterlife felt fraudulent, but I hadn't yet come up with an alternative. We had never been to a church service of any kind, and I avoided telling her any Christian stories, especially around Easter. It hadn't occurred to me until now how convenient religious traditions could be when explaining the cycles of life to children. I thought I had more time to plan for this conversation.

In a pinch, I decided, literal facts wouldn't hurt. "Eventually our bodies don't work anymore. We put them into the ground and they become part of the earth."

It was a fine start, but her silence made me panic. So I added, ecumenically, that "lots of people believe a part of us never dies. They believe part of us goes into the air and lives forever."

As soon as the words came out of my mouth I felt reckless. I wanted to soothe her so badly, offering a quick, pretty image of eternity seemed worth the hassle of a confusing adulthood.

If our favorite carpool escort, Carie, hadn't arrived with her big smile and pile of red hair, I'd have kept talking way past an appropriate threshold, into my own hybrid beliefs of astral planes and animism. But Carie took my daughter's hand with a light and playful touch not often found in our structured school, or frankly in our own home. I watched them climb the steps together, my daughter's face lit with delight, and made a mental note to look at life more like Carie sometimes.

No one, not even Carie herself, knew she was sick. She still looked and acted like a teenager, especially when I'd catch her sneaking a cigarette in the carpool alley. She often made me laugh by hurling a sharp quip about love and professional uncertainty my way. In my mind I saw her as a younger, South Side Chicago version of myself. She had that combination of sweet and tough that made me want to guide her away from struggle and towards ease.

The first time she babysat for us, we gabbed lightly about whether or not she should get bangs. The next time she told me it had been thirty days since she had a drink and that she was doing a detox. The next time, she told me her dreams: to restart her mother's business selling gently used children's toys. She had all the merchandise stored carefully. She had maintained good relationships with vendors and service people. As she told me the business plan, she lay on the floor of my daughter's bedroom and, surrounded by children's toys, her eyes twinkled.

"That's a wonderful idea," I told her, "I can see you doing that very thing."

"I was good at it," she said modestly.

When I urged her to pursue her dreams, she waved her hand at me. The whole idea overwhelmed her. I told her detox made everything harder. I told her to keep drinking green tea. To give it time. She was still young.

Carie felt worse as her detox continued, despite the tea. After a few more babysitting sessions she went to the doctor. She checked into the hospital shortly after. During bone marrow transplant number one, my daughter painted elaborate cards and decorated them with stickers while singing Carie's praises. Carie doesn't ever wear a purse. Carie's cell phone has the best ring. Carie has the most beautiful hair. During transplant number two, when Carie's brain started hemorrhaging, my daughter made a declaration. I'm not doing carpool until Carie comes back.

She is still not doing carpool.

The school had sent around literature on explaining death to children, suggesting we use simplicity and clarity for 4-year-olds. My husband and I rehearsed what we should say. Carie was very very sick, and she died. She's not sick anymore, but she isn't coming back.

My daughter seemed to take the information in easily, so much so that my own grieving in the private gym bathroom, on the steps of the memorial service after dropping off a quiche, felt excessive. How is it that she can cry about a stuffed animal's ripped arm and not her babysitter's death? Her immediate request to play Candyland seemed to indicate, impossibly, she understood death to be a natural part of the life cycle. Perhaps, I thought, she no longer fears dying. Perhaps I had given her the exact right preparation all those days of pointing out the window to decaying, old things.

It takes a 4-year-old months, even years, to comprehend abstract ideas like death, the school literature had said. The teachers were prepared to answer any questions the children might have. There was a memorial featuring pictures of Carie in 3rd grade, getting confirmed, getting ready for the prom. Though the mourning period was hard, I took comfort in how the whole school moved through the sadness. A lilac tree would be planted in the front garden in Carie's memory. A collection was taken up by the family association to help pay Carie's outstanding medical bills. My own questions about how Carie's illness escalated so quickly were answered: the alcohol and cigarettes had been masking her symptoms. Within a few weeks Carie's death had been ceremoniously grieved and life, at least at the school, bravely marched on.

At home, however, the anxiety got worse. Once my daughter connected the dots that sickness could lead to death, even the most mundane activities sparked caution. I'm washing my hands so I won't get sick. I'm eating green beans so my body won't get sick. Mommy, you shouldn't drink too much coffee. I don't want you to get sick. I want my body to stay healthy. What if you and daddy both get sick and die? Who will take care of me? Where will you go?

While I calmly explained the arrangements we had made for her in case both my husband and I died, inside I grappled for an answer to her bigger question. It was the same one from months ago and I still had no good explanation. Instead, I repeated the same platitude: Daddy and I will do everything we can to live a long time and keep you safe.

I already know that, she said.

"Where did Carie go?" she asked towards the end of the school year. I was driving through a six-corner intersection in downtown Chicago. I had to pull the car over; between her need to know and the lingering tragedy of Carie's death in my heart, I was seeing double. I have no idea, I wanted to say. I have no idea where Carie went. There were a lot of open-ended aspects to parenting with which I had made peace: the benefits of co-sleeping, of nursing long-term, of raising a child without organized religion. Glossing over a friend's untimely, unfair death, however, was not one of them.

Determined, I took her to the Art Institute of Chicago's Renaissance and Baroque Art collection. I hurried her passed the fire and brimstone renditions of bloody Christs until we came upon some Dutch and Flemish paintings of angels. Cute, curly cherubs hovered above troubled mortals.

"Angels," I said, "are these little creatures here in the clouds. Can you see them? How many do you see?"

She scrutinized the painting and started counting. She followed me to a few more paintings and I carefully talked about what the painters believed; that angels lived in the air, that they played instruments and sang beautiful songs.That they helped people.

"I like to think that Carie," I said, "is with the angels."

Again, silence. I detected a new sentiment: interest. We stayed at the museum looking at art for a good twenty minutes, Finally, she said, they're pretty. Then we went to get ice cream.

If you were to ask my daughter about our trip to the Art Institute to see angels, she will describe to you an elaborate mound of ice cream scoops in a fancy dish. I'd like to think the earlier part of the journey is the reason why she still talks about Carie but doesn't ask where she is anymore. But more likely it was the half-year of glorious distractions. A summer of beach visits, a fifth birthday, and a new kindergarten curriculum helped pass the time, and I'm thankful. Still, a small part of me believes she is better off for knowing great works of art were painted to ask the same questions that she asks; that her curiosity and classical artwork share a common thread.

I'm not ruling out the possibility of calling on religious ritual in the future. For now, though, the Art Institute and ice cream are enough.