My kids love to ask me questions when I'm distracted. And I'm often distracted. Particularly when I'm making jewelry, they will trot up to me and I'll hear a few mumbled words, and then "Okay, Momma? Okay? Okay? MOMMA.... OKAY??" I will have no idea what they said, but to make the noise stop I'll mutter "okay" - and they are off like a shot. It usually takes me a few minutes to realize that I'm not hearing anything, that it is too quiet. I'll peek around the corner to find them naked and drawing on each other with a Sharpie marker. Upon seeing my evil stare, they will say "but you said we could make tattoos, Momma, you said it was okay."
And mothers everywhere know about the hidden phone alarm ... you know that one that only kids can hear, the one that alerts them to the fact that you are trying to speak to another adult and it is time to pepper you with requests for juice, or a snack, or why the sky is blue, or where their favorite blanket is ... anything to prevent you from finishing a sentence. I have been known to literally throw ice cream sandwiches at them to keep them quiet. And I have to throw them to ensure they have to go further away to get them.
So sometimes I'm only half-there. My daughter, who can write and is learning to read, asks me constantly to spell things for her. Usually its a caption for a picture, or a list of things she likes, or a sign for her bedroom door that says "No boys allowed unless you are Dadda or Finn or Grandpa or PopPop". So I'm rather used to multi-tasking in this fashion - I'm beading away and she's calling out questions on how to spell things, and I'm only kind of paying attention. The other day, while I was engrossed in a project, she was asking me questions. "What is Mimi and PopPop's phone number?" she asked. Then she wanted Grammy and Grandpa's phone number, then my cell phone number ... I figured she was learning about phone numbers at school, and felt a brief swelling of pride that she was practicing school stuff at home.
I was getting her a glass of water before bed that night, and I saw the little list of phone numbers on the kitchen counter. At the top of the list was the number "911" (with the nine backwards, but I can read fluent 6 year-old so I knew what it meant). She was brushing her teeth, and I came up with the list and asked her what it was.
"Its emergency numbers I need" she said through a mouthful of toothpaste.
"Its good to be prepared - that is great thinking, sweetie!" I beamed.
"I put 911 at the top, because I know that one brings the police right away because of that time Finn was playing with the phone and then suddenly the police showed up. Remember that, Momma?"
Yes, yes I do. I remember it well.
"And I need the other numbers to call the people I'm going to live with when you and Dadda die."
I struggle to maintain my poker face. "When we die? What do you mean?"
"Well, you aren't going to live forever, and you are about to turn 40, and Dadda is even older than that, so I wanted the phone numbers of who I will call so I can live with them when you die."
It is moments like these where I wish I had the manual for parenting. Or at least a pause button so I could run and call my other Mommy friends and ask what to say before responding with something idiotic that will scar her forever. My first thought, unhelpfully, is to point out that Mimi, PopPop, Grammy and Grandpa are, in fact, even older than we are.
Then I feel a sort of sadness, a sense of loss, that at 6 years old she is already worrying about this stuff. Not yet, I think, let her stay blissfully unaware of these things for just a bit longer.
"And I would make sure Finn comes, too" she continues, "because I am the older sister and I will help take care of him." She is beaming.
And it hits me - she's not scared. She isn't paralyzed by fear that we are going to die - she is working through her fears, coming up with a solution, stepping up to the plate and figuring things out on her own. It is me that is scared - scared to let her grow up a little. It is so tempting to deliver platitudes, to tell her that she doesn't need to worry about this stuff, that Dadda and I aren't going anywhere, that she is being silly. But she is too smart for that now. She knows I can't promise any such thing. Saying those things would make me feel better, and would invalidate her emotions completely.
"Good thinking, hon" I say instead, swallowing the lump in my throat. "Lets put it someplace special where you can't lose it."
We find a special spot in her room to keep the list, and I tuck her into bed. Tomorrow she will be on to new and different things, the list all but forgotten. It makes me think of the Serenity Prayer, one that I say to myself often, but don't always follow with great success: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Way to go, kid.