A vivid memory from nursing school was the day we learned children will often use the color purple in artwork when they come to an understanding of mortality. Not their own mortality, because as we know, even children as old as teens cannot conceive of their own death, hence the success of the show “Jackass”. Kids come to understand simply that mortality is quite real…that death is permanent. I remember looking over at my study group as we gave each other the raised eyebrow look: are they serious? Dr. W. went onto say kids would often incorporate a purple balloon into a drawing. Double eyebrow raise as we could barely stifle our giggles. Do you mean to say, around the age of 5 or soon thereafter, all children across the globe, draw a purple balloon when they conceive of death? Am I paying for this education or did I win it out of a cereal box? And now I’m going to practice rolling my study partner off and on bedpans? And you’re going to grade me on that skill? My vote was on the cereal box…until the Nephrology unit when we learned just how dumb we were. Hard, hard, hug a kidney doc, that stuff is hard.
Kelly’s first purple outfit. Our full term baby finally out of preemie clothes at 8 weeks.
Like the diligent students we were
brainwashed trained to be, we memorized this fact, quizzed each other on it, and because of it’s oddity, I never forgot it. I can’t find a single point of reference of this child psychology “rumor”, but one of the most popular books written on childhood hospice issues is indeed titled, The Purple Balloon.
So where is this ramble going? A couple of months ago, Kelly started doing very un-Kelly things. Like following me around the house. Like screaming my name if I went behind a closed door. Like falling into a full breakdown if I didn’t answer immediately. Like collapsing into tears in the carpool line the day I wasn’t waiting for her at the door. Like repeating this breakdown the day I drove Daddy’s car to school pick up, and stepped out of the car wearing new sunglasses with my hair in a bun. Apparently she thought a stranger who resembled her Mommy had come to take her away forever. And the teachers were just going to hand her over to this suspicious woman with the poorly pinned up-do wearing big white sunglasses (those glasses were quickly given 2 thumbs down by my posse, but I’m still wearing them to irk the girls). Luckily Sara tackled me with a hug before Kelly totally lost her mind, to which Sara asked, “You don’t know your own Daddy’s car? Kelly, we need to have a talk.” In 5 year old terms, the grim reaper has messy hair and poor taste in sunglasses. Now you know.
Blame a Grandma for the nail polish, but you can blame me for the hair.
It’s not unusual for Kelly to talk about heaven and angels, but lately, she has started asking far more probing questions. When will I die? What will she be doing in her life when I die? Where will Sara be? Why will I die? Why would I choose to do such a fool-hardy thing? Can’t I just say no to death?
This ballet lesson brought to you by the color purple.
As luck would have it, I met a pal from nursing school for coffee last Friday. I love how a full decade can pass, but dear friends can start mid-sentence, beginning where we left off so long ago. Our children are growing up in the Information Age, so they’ll never know the deep joy that comes from reconnecting with old friends. Then again, they won’t carry around a pail of missingness for friends with whom they’ve lost track. When they’re 45, they’ll be able to tell me what their high school chemistry lab partner made for dinner last night. But I digress. Brenda mentioned her Kindergarten son’s recent and unexpected focus on death. I’m not sure I would have ever made the connection had I not been sitting next to her in that lecture 20 years ago. YES! PURPLE BALLOON!! PURPLE BALLOON! Our kids are FIVE. We were told this growing pain happens around the age of 5. Of course. As it came together it hit me: Kelly didn’t just conceive of death in general…she conceived of mine.
You knew I had this picture. I HAD to have it.
Think Lori, think. What did we learn to say to patients in nursing school? Never say, “Everything is going to be fine”, and never say, “You’re not going to die”. These are things you cannot promise. Be empathetic. Be honest. Be kind. Be informative.
OK, so here we go:
Mommy: Kelly, I know why you’re following me everywhere I go. I’ll try to be more patient when you cry every time I walk out of your sight. I know you’re afraid I’m going to die. I’m not. I’m not going to die.
Kelly: But everybody dies!
Mommy: I’ll die when I’m old. Really, really, old. By then, you’ll be old too. And your own kids will be grown, and you will be a grandma. (Let Lori Math of 2013 begin: if Kelly has a baby when I had her, and her baby has a baby at a similar age, I’ll have to live to 105 to meet my Great Grandchildren. Pass the vee-ta-mins friends, because I’ve got some years to survive!)
Kelly: Is your favorite color still purple?
Mommy: Always has been, always will be.
Kelly: My ear feels better. It feels purple. When it hurt, it felt black, but the purple finally won. I think purple is going to be my favorite color again.
Mommy: It was for years. I don’t know why you ever switched to pink. Purple is far more interesting.
Kelly: Will you be as old at Pa Pa Bump when you die?
Mommy: Older. I can outlive that Tomcat. Just watch me.
Kelly (giggling): I’ll try to stop crying so much, but I probably can’t do it. I just feel like crying.
Mommy: It’s OK honey. Everything is fine, much better than you think.
Kelly: How do you know?
Mommy: God told me.
Kelly: Oh. OK. Are the cats going to die?
Mommy: Pretty sure a couple of them might be dead already. You should go check.
As it turns out, what you’d say to an ICU patient and what you should say to your 5 year old are very different things. And Kel-Belle, always remember what I taught you about heaven: when you die and come up to meet me, specify “PIE HEAVEN”. I’ll be there as opposed to “REGULAR HEAVEN”. I feel I can’t stress this enough. Look for the angel dressed in purple. Just joking. You won’t have to wait for me…you know Momma is always waiting for you at the door. Hugs and kisses baby girl. Momma will be there with hugs and kisses.