“Does everyone die, Mummy?” asks my four year old casually one day this week while I’m folding the laundry. My heart races, because I can see where this is going, but I strive to keep my tone light and matter of fact.
“Yes, darling. Everyone dies one day, but usually not until they’re very old.”
“Or sometimes if they’re very sick.” she says.
“Yes, sometimes then.”
I carry on folding.
“Did Grandad Paul die because he was very old, or very sick, Mummy?”
Sadly my father-in-law never got to meet either of the granddaughters he would have adored, but we often talk about him.
“Well, Grandad Paul was quite old, but he also got very sick. That happens more often when people get old.”
Her huge brown eyes are solemn, taking it in. I brace myself.
“Will you die, Mummy?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I will. One day. But not yet.”
She is quiet again, and her next question is whether she can use the laundry basket as a boat. Then last night, while getting ready for bed, her lip started to tremble.
“I don’t want you to die, Mummy.” The trembling lip becomes a sob.
Bam. There it is. The knife straight through my psyche. Before this precious rainbow baby of mine was born I had several miscarriages, and then a frankly terrifying birth. She had some frightening (though thankfully harmless) health scares when she was a baby and toddler. All this led to me having massive health anxiety. Without delving too far into the murky depths of my subconscious, I developed the conviction that I was too lucky, that I didn’t deserve this baby, and that I would be punished for my unwarranted good fortune by my untimely death or hers. Cheery. I have been to some very dark places in my head during the last four years, but I am recovering at last. This, though. This is my dread. Having to leave my girls when they still need me.
I hold her close.
“I know you don’t darling. And I’m not going to yet. Look, I’m 38, aren’t I? And my mummy is still alive.” She takes this in. I want to reassure her that I won’t die for 50 years, not until she is a middle-aged woman herself, but I can’t make my lips form the words, because I don’t know for sure they’re true. How can I? How can any of us? As a spiritually curious agnostic, neither can I manage a comforting story about heaven. What I do try to articulate is the truth as I passionately believe it to be.
“Listen my darling girl. I love you SO MUCH. You are so, so, so loved. And you always will be. Mummy will always love you, and my love will always be inside you here, [I place my hand on her heart] forever.”
We cuddle in silence.
“Will I die, Mummy?”
I struggle to keep tears from my voice.
“Yes, one day, you will. But not for a very long time.”
“I only want to die if you’re with me, Mummy.”
I could barely hold it together, but I did. Love trumps fear.
I repeat that I will always love her, that she will always be loved, that my love is part of her.
My panic-stricken mind is telling me to lock my little family in a hermetically sealed chamber, where we will live off carefully balanced vitamin supplements and take our daily ration of exercise on a padded treadmill, with a team of medics in 24/7 attendance. But I know from therapy that, even if this were possible, it is the worst way of fighting fear. I want to teach my girls to live without dread, to take the risks and feel the wind in their hair, to have adventures and taste all that this wonderful world has to offer.
I will keep you safe, I want to promise. I won’t die, I want to promise. But I can’t. All I can promise, all I will promise her and her sister every day of my life, is that I love them, and will always love them, and that love doesn’t die when we do.
This post was originally published on blogzine Selfish Mother.