My Blog List

Friday, July 2, 2010

some questions and fewer answers

My father passed away ten years ago. I did not expect it to happen so soon (he was not 70 yet), especially because he was always so busy with life, interested in so many things: history, archaeology, classical music, literature, politics, gardening, traveling, silly jokes, and most of all, friendships. I was really mad at him for leaving us before I had a chance to do all the things I planned to do with him, and before I had a chance to learn from him everything he could teach me. I was also sad that my daughter did not get to know him as well as I would liked her to. I think they would have made a great team.

I wanted my father to leave a written legacy in the form of books or essays rather than the enormous collection of slides and records/CDs/tapes he had left behind for my brother to sift through. I wanted him to leave something for posterity; something more tangible than memories.

When I expressed that thought to my brother he said, but look how much his life touched the lives of other people. So I looked. And when we buried him on that beautiful hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on July 4th 2000, people talked about how he enriched their life by teaching them to appreciate music and books, and mentioned the educational trips he organized to all the corners of Israel (as well as other countries in the region) and his enthusiasm and friendship. And that was very comforting.

When a parent dies you realize that you are next in line and that time is running out. This realization takes a while to sink in, but it does, eventually, so one learns to embrace life with more gratitude and appreciate every passing moment.

In life and death my father taught me pretty much the same lesson: life is precious, make good use of it.

Here’s something I wrote to remember him shortly after the completion of the Shiva’ (the Jewish seven days of mourning):

Questions Anyone?
When I was in kindergarten I learned a song about a cute little boy who ceaselessly asked “Why.” He wanted to know why birds have wings, why cows moo, and why his shadow runs away from light. At the end, the songwriter concluded, pessimistically, that there would be no relief, because the moment you’d answer one question, the child would present you with a new one.

The song, entitled “Why?” had taught me the universal truth that cute little children ask a lot of questions, some of which have no answers. Perhaps that was why I was not completely surprised when my daughter reached her “Why Stage” and started questioning everything.

While I was not incredibly surprised, I was poorly prepared to answer her questions. Here I was practicing my limited parenting skills, struggling to teach her basic manners, the importance of good nutrition, how to brush her teeth, share her toys, and wait for her turn, and she wanted to know why.

I was hoping that the why stage would come much later, once she started school, after she learned to read and analyze the facts, preferably with the help of self-possessed teachers who thoroughly enjoyed re-living the discovery process. But life as a parent is never that easy. I had no choice but to start answering questions. Lots of them.

“Sweetie, let’s empty the sand from your shoes before we get in the car,” I say when it is time to leave the playground.
“But why?” she retorts.

The first time the question came up I explained, patiently, what happens when sand-filled shoes are emptied onto the backseat of a car. The second time she confronted me with her “but why?” I looked into her eyes and imitated her in a small voice, “but, but, but, but why?”
She understood immediately. “Sorry, Mommy,” she responded in her sweetest voice, a hint of a lisp on the Sorry.

Instead of acting like a grownup and tell my daughter that it was okay to ask many questions, I chose to praise my astute self. “But, but, but why?” became my signal that a certain question was going to remain unanswered. The new tactic received its seal of approval when my daughter abandoned the apologetic “Sorry, Mommy,” and happily recited my line every time she saw me frown at one of her questions.

Sadly, though, my juvenile solution quickly drowned in a flood of new unexpected questions, many of them lacked the Why opening, which robbed me of my precious signal. Now “Who gave it to me?” became one of the most pressing questions. Anything my daughter touched, wore, played with, or ate logically had to be given to her by someone. And, naturally, I was the authority on the origin of each object. Who else was there to trust, anyway?

One afternoon, on the way home from daycare, she asked me if I had a surprise for her, which meant that she was hoping to get a sweet treat. Proud of my maternal intuition, I had already anticipated that question, I reached for my bag, fumbled inside, fished out a chocolate disk wrapped in gold foil, and handed it to her.

She shoved the whole thing into her mouth and asked, breathless, “Who gave it to me?”
“Who do you think gave it to you?” I tried to hide my irritation.
With her mouth full of chocolate, her lips already turning into a sticky brown mess, she pointed her finger at me and mumbled shamelessly, “You.”

The next morning I was helping her get dressed when suddenly the question popped out of her mouth, again. Pointing at her plain white socks she asked me, “Who gave it to me?”
Since she had a drawer full of socks, it was almost impossible to determine who gave her that specific pair. Unless it was a distinctive pair with a picture of Pooh, Bambi, or any other character she liked to wear on her feet, there was no way I could have remembered where it came from.

“I gave it to you,” I said, feeling like a filthy liar. After all, I could have said Grandma or Auntie Dorit, but I didn’t.
“Thank you, Mommy,” she said, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me on the cheek, making me feel even worse for lying.

The challenge to provide an answer to each question was overwhelming. But my bad feelings dissipated as soon as I discovered that many times the innocent little girl knew and remembered, surprisingly well, who gave her what, when, and where. To ease my troubled conscious, I decided to adopt the academic method, which separates life into little compartments and puts each one under a magnifying glass. I divided my daughter’s questions into the following categories:

At the bottom of the ladder slouched the annoying, irritating, testing, time-consuming, meaningless Provocative Question. That question did not always demand an answer and could be ignored, unless my daughter kept asking it over and over again, and my head felt like it was going to explode. Questions like “Why can’t I have another candy?” or “Why can’t I watch TV during dinner?” or “Why take a bath?” did not have to be taken seriously if answered once before. Their purpose was to challenge, irritate, test, and communicate dissatisfaction. When asked a Provocative Question, I allowed myself in many cases to stoop to the lowly “Because I said so,” or the shorter version “Because,” and feel completely fine.

Above the Provocative Question sat tall the Practical Question. It did not lean on anything or even rest an elbow on the step. It was genuinely curious, intelligent, and benevolent. Most of the Practical Questions had a clear, concise, honest answer. “Why should I close the refrigerator door?” Pretty simple. “Do cats, dogs, snakes, bite?” Sometimes. “Why can’t I chew the gum I found glued to the bottom of this table?” Because it’s disgusting. Case closed.

The Scientific-Factual Question could be challenging because it demanded a scientific answer and, sometimes, even science could not answer it. But this question was still quite easy to answer. It reclined comfortably on the middle step of the ladder, observing its surrounding, taking notes, comparing, contrasting, and reaching interesting conclusions. “Where is Japan?” Far away. “Why is there water on the car’s windows in the morning?” I could make up something or look for a scientific explanation in a book. “Why do airplanes fly?” Beats me.

I am quite sure that many parents love this type of question because it implies that their kid is smart, curious, and perceptive. Many times the Scientific Question can be almost as annoying as the Provocative Question. My friend, Orna, who raised four incredibly talented, smart, self-motivated kids and kept her sanity intact in the process, told me I did not always have to answer factual questions. ”They don’t expect an answer, they are just making a comment,” she explained. “Smile and give them a hug, it would satisfy them more than an answer.” Bless her heart.

Because of its emotionally undemanding nature, the Scientific Question also permitted the humbling “I don’t know” answer. And as long as not too many of those questions came up my way, the teacher in me was more than glad to comply.

Questions about Life and Relationships are a bit more complicated because they have no definite, complete answers. Many times I am reluctant to answer them, mainly because often they generate more questions. “Why don’t Peter’s parents live together?” Apart from the fact that I didn’t want to know all the details, I wasn’t sure what would be the best answer. And where does curiosity begin to sound like gossip? “Why can’t I play with Daniel?” She scratches your face when you play together and her mommy doesn’t do anything to stop it. Was that the right answer? How far should I go? “Can I marry Steven, too?” Well, he’s only thirty years older than you are, maybe you should let him marry his girlfriend and stay friends with both of them. Now I have to deal with jealousy, disappointment, and female rivalry. It may be good material for a soap opera, but quite a challenge for a well-meaning parent who wants to raise a happy child.

At the top of the ladder hangs the Big Existential Question, suspended between heaven and earth, its eyes always looking up, around, down, behind, and sometimes even beyond, seeking answers to questions the human race had been racking its mind over for centuries. My daughter had not asked me, yet, any Big Question, and even though she already uses the exclamation “Oh, my God!” she had never asked me any God question, either. However, in spite of her cheerful disposition and total avoidance of anything scary, i.e., spiders, hair on the bathroom floor, dark rooms, barking dogs, and all Disney movies, I know that she would soon arrive at those questions, and what am I supposed to do?

My initial reaction is to procrastinate, evade, and lie. When our ninety-six-year-old neighbor died on the early morning of Mother’s Day I chickened out and told my daughter that Francis went to live with her relatives because she was too tired to go up and down the stairs. It did not feel good to deceive her, but it postponed the moment I had to deal with The Big Questions. I clearly remembered how scared I was when I first found out that this fun thing called “life” was not eternal and that everything alive was going to be dead one day, including my parents, my puppy, the fish in the aquarium, and even myself. I started to obsess about everything I touched, ate, saw, and even smelled. Is it going to poison me? Am I going to die now? And then what?

I was afraid my daughter would have to go through the same turmoil. I wanted to protect her, to let her be all grown up and brave when she heard the bad news, so I did not rush to tell her the truth. Then my father died.

Only twice in her life did she have the opportunity to spend time with him. Once as a ten-month-old baby, the second time shortly after she had turned three. Because my father lived on the other side of the planet, many, many long and exhausting hours away from us, we did not see one another often. Yet the impression he had made on my daughter was strong enough to imprint itself on her mind. In spite of her tender years, she knew that she had a loving grandfather who lived far, far away, and that we had to fly in an airplane to visit him.

So I didn’t tell her. I couldn’t bring myself to do it when I saw her looking at his picture. My friend Orna says, “Just say it; kids understand things in a different way. She might not even ask you anything.” But what if she does?

I used to believe that life goes on after death and that we never lose those we love. But now I’m not so sure. I don’t want to lose the comfort of this belief. But in spite of myself and all the years I had been trying to get in touch with whatever it is out there by studying different spiritual teachings, I am still besieged by Existential Questions.

I guess that’s part of living. Paying attention, asking questions, and not worrying about the answers, because answers are not as interesting and revealing as questions. At the moment I am not very clear what my father’s death means, but in a few months some clarity will settle in. And then I will be able to tell my daughter. My maternal intuition tells me that it will not be a dramatic moment. She will ask a question or two, and go on with her life. If she asks me a Big Question I will hug her and smile, as my friend recommends. At best I will say, “I don’t know.” And if I feel up to it, I will ask, “What do you think?”

Summer, 2000

No comments:

Post a Comment