Can a ham­ster van­quish the Grim Reaper?

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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’

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