Can a hamster vanquish the Grim Reaper?
Occasionally when I’m tidying up, or flipping through a notebook for a clean page, I’ll still find the notes, written in my six-year-old daughter’s uncertain hand:
My Bad Thoughts
1 People dieing [sic] 2 Robbers 3 People getting old There were probably 50 of them stashed away at one point, dating back to last winter, when Lola was drawn into a devastating cycle of night-time fear. I’ve kept a few as reminders, but mostly throw them away when they turn up, lest they fall into less understanding hands.
Their sentiment came from nowhere that we could tell, emerging on an evening in early January. Overtired from jet lag and a new year that was raucous even by adult standards, Lola would not, could not sleep. Instead, she broke into sobs, grasped at my sleeves, screamed in terror when I left her view. I checked for open wounds and, for good measure, scolded her sister in the bottom bunk. But I wasn’t prepared when she finally cried out that inexorable truth.
“You and Daddy – you’re going to… die!”
Well. Nothing I hadn’t pondered daily since turning 40 – or, rather, since I became a mother and that unstoppable reel of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” debuted in my head. Still, it was a shade too dark for my sunny, funny child of six.
“That won’t happen for a very, very long time. You’ll be an old lady by then,” I told her, echoing my own mother’s reassurance after a nightmare (with Amy Carter in a supporting role – it was that long ago) brought me to her bed. “You can’t know that for sure!” Lola wasn’t born yesterday. She had been through the family photos, pointed out the unfamiliar faces. She had flung a macabre Roald Dahl tale across the bedroom, banning it from the bookshelf. I considered all those movies we had flicked past on television, and Lola’s stock question of the stars on screen: “Is she still alive in real life?” Judy Garland, Carole Lombard, Natalie Wood, Brittany Murphy… As often as not, the answer was, “Oh, no – she died young.”
But we were blessed with good health, I reminded Lola. And a firstrate burglar alarm. Then I reached deep, to my inner life coach. “Ultimately, all we can do is to enjoy life one day at a time, the best we can.”
She seemed to appreciate the Oprah shtick. I laid it on thick – “Change what you can and accept what you can’t” – and soon bedtime at ours was like a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, with me printing out calligraphed posters of the Serenity Prayer and the girls reciting it from memory.
Still, her anxiety was unyielding: the sudden onset of tears as I announced bedtime, or a bellow in the night, allowing only: “It’s my same worries, Mummy.” The written notes began as an exercise to clear her head, to transfer her fears onto a piece of paper she could fold up and out of sight. They were less a cure than a nightly maintenance with the ultimate goal of boring her to distraction.
Meanwhile, I sought advice from other mums. “Judith Kerr’s final Mog book is about Mog kicking the bucket,” offered one. “Maybe it’s easier to deal with if it’s a cat you’re reading about.” Likewise, a few chat rooms I gatecrashed online recommended adopting a pet as a helpful primer on life and death. That hamster we had been promising Lola on her seventh birthday began to sound like more than a plain indulgence.
Another friend said she had deflected a public meltdown with the promise of Haribo and this: “I eventually told her that by the time she grew up people wouldn’t be dying as they’d invent a cure for it. And you never know, do you?”
For the present era, though, experts suggest laying it on the line. Virginia Slaughter, an authority in early cognitive development at the University of Queensland, Australia, told me: “I think you want to answer questions as honestly and thoroughly as possible. All living things are born, grow and then die. You can acknowledge it’s scary, because we don’t know anything about it. But it’s the reality of all living things.”
A few weeks’ playing musical beds and we were all having morbid thoughts. Which is why, in a haze, I found myself one morning on a schoolroom chair opposite Emma, the school counsellor, a woman who commutes on a push scooter and speaks with the methodical cadence of a shipping forecaster. She had, despite her troubling overuse of the phrase “highly unusual”, an ace up her sleeve.
“Worry time,” she said, should begin each evening after bath and last for 10 minutes. Just Lola and me, talking about The End like a couple of pensioners. Emma was adamant that Worry Time should be a ritual we stick to, long past any change in Lola’s mood.
When her sister wasn’t hanging over the back of the sofa brandishing Room on the Broom, Lola relished my attention, articulating her worries in a stream of consciousness: losing her parents, losing her sister, watching us grow old and ill, being left to care for herself. That vulnerability manifested in a fear of intruders (not altogether unfounded on our east London street) and we talked about how we protect ourselves and, yes, do the best we can.
I think in the end she got sick of the loop in her head. Or else sick of the platitudes I offered in return. Eventually she began to wander off before our 10 minutes was up, and by spring the masking tape that fixed our Serenity Prayer to the wall over her bed had lost its stick.
Within three months my calls for Worry Time were overruled. And in April, Lola picked out a grey and white Syrian hamster that has since grown to twice its girth. So we survived the wobble. It’s just got me wondering: for how long?
Tears before bedtime: Ellen Himelfarb was concerned by Lola’s morbid sentiments - ‘a shade too dark for my sunny, funny child’