Her Uncompromised Mortality

This week Kick went to kindergarten. She put on her brand-new shoes and brand-new backpack and brand-new jacket and she marched up to the schoolhouse door. The bell rang, she took a deep breath, and she walked inside.

So how does this work, I’ve been asking my friends, the ones with older kids. I just, like, send her to school?


If she does okay they don’t call me?  I don’t get pictures? There’s no minute-by-minute accounting of every second of her life away from me? If I call them to ask, just casually, like hey how’s it going, I am a crazy person who needs some kind of intervention?


Ohhhhhkay. I mean, if that’s how it’s supposed to be done.

All day, during Kick’s first day, my friends with older kids kept asking how I was doing, as if I was the one who was going to a new place full of new people where nothing made any sense to me. As if I was going to have a tough day. I did not have a tough day. I went home and took a nap. One of the cats napped next to me like a stuffed animal.

I was not the one out in the world, crossing busy streets and going into buildings with little signs even my 5-year-old knows how to translate:

Did I think about her during the day? Of course I did. Did I think about her comfort, about her self-assurance, about how to make sure she succeeded in whatever number-awareness and reading-readiness she’ll be doing this year? Of course I did.

Mostly, though, I thought about this:

I research the statistics because the therapist believed it would help me stop catastrophizing: The smallness of the chances of a school shooting happening to her. The relative rarity of handguns in our neighborhood. The lack of any immediate family history of childhood cancer, while we’re at it, and how Mr. A is fanatical about carseat safety, and the way I smell the milk the day before the expiration date so we don’t ingest some kind of poison.

I don’t believe we can ever be safe. Nothing here is promised, not one day. Not to anyone, no matter the wall of concrete or money or solitude we place around each other. Still, we take precautions.

We take our vitamins. We look twice before crossing. We put antibiotic ointment on our scrapes. We eat healthy and visit the doctor once a year. We watch and breathe and pray and practice kindness, and every day we do it right, we still rock closer to the abyss.

Children know this, more than adults. That’s why all fairy tales are about the world beneath this world, why all nursery rhymes sing death: Children at the beginnings of their lives are closer to the darkness than we will ever be again until the end. Once upon not so very long ago the winters took more children than they spared. I thought of that at Kick’s christening, when she was still small enough to fit against my body: This comes from a time when we were likely to lose her.

I don’t know how to deal with people who think nothing bad can happen to their children. How to deal with people who lament their growing up, growing out, and becoming. How to deal with people who come up with reasons to hate their children and make them ashamed. All I think about is keeping my child alive, keeping her going, making sure I never see her ending. I try to imagine anything that would make me want to lose her, even for a moment, and shudder at bringing even the thought that close.

I feared her loss before I knew her name.

We take all these precautions. We pray all these prayers. We draw circles, ask for protection within and without, and then we send our children to school with bulletproof backpacks and call that security. Are there people who don’t feel this way about their children’s safety? I’ve seen people lose their children: to sickness, violence, war, depression. The protecting we do now — hide in the closet during “safety practice,” hide and be quiet — is inadequate to the point of laughter, is a dollar-store umbrella against Noah’s own flood.

A child of mine
Would eat fire, sing death
Still my hands forever
With her uncompromised mortality 

— Marilyn Hacker, The Song of Líadan


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