It was one of those incredible moments as a parent that I just wanted to be able to catch like a butterfly in a bottle, a moment both so sweet and so terrifying. “But, will you die, too, Imma?” I overheard our 4-and-a-half-year old ask my wife.
“Yes, but not for a very long time.”
“But will I die, too?”
“Yes, everybody dies, but not for a very, very long time.”
“But I don’t want to die!”
For me as a psychologist, this is a developmental moment. For me as a parent, it was a source of both great terror and great joy.
I wonder if my father, of blessed memory, had similar feelings when it happened for me. We were in a car, driving past a graveyard I think. An engineer by trade and inclination, he was a very rigidly logical thinker in some ways and I would guess he thought it was important to honestly explain to me how the world worked, so he did. My memory is mostly an emotional one, of feeling terribly and deeply upset. Terrified.
A part of me is like my father. I want my daughter to know how the world works, to know it is full of terrible things. Racism happens. The Shoah happened. Cancer happens. Pandemics happen. Black lives matter. Part of being a full human being, a good human being, is knowing about suffering and injustice and seeking your own special place in fighting it, your call or שליחות/shlichut in the language of religion. I want her to become that, to grow into a pursuer of justice.
But the other part of me wants to protect her, to preserve her innocence, to shield her from harm, to guarantee that she will always stay the happy, joyful and well-adjusted child that — seemingly miraculously to a man who had a deeply unhappy childhood — she is.
Disney certainly knows about this tension. They make movies like Frozen that are full of joy and innocence and wonder, but where change and death are at the center of the story. Elsa and Anna’s parents, as living figures, play only the briefest of roles in the story before they mysteriously disappear into a deadly ocean storm. In Frozen II — which my daughter just calls “Orphans” — the two now young adult sisters come across the beached wreck of the ship their parents died in. “What happened to their parents?” my daughter asks me. “Where did they go?”
Where did they go? I don’t know. None of us knows what happens to the dead, and why we have to suffer the pain of being parted from them. Works about orphans — like also the massively popular one about a boy wizard with a scar on his head and a nemesis who must-not-be-named — prepare children to cope with a world of loss.
But these works also cheat a bit to do so. While they may indeed present a world where loved ones die, they also present worlds with happy endings, where someone, usually someone with superpowers, comes and saves the day, and where even at least some dead things can be resurrected. In the first Frozen — which my daughter just calls “Elsa freezes Anna” — Anna is indeed accidentally frozen, apparently forever, by her sister with the superpowers. But then, in an “act of true love,” Elsa is able to revive her, as she also does in Frozen II, with the beloved talking snowman, Olaf. Thankfully, “water has memory,” she says, repeating one of his favorite aphorisms, while reviving him.
I love that movies like this end with the lead characters saving the day with their superpowers. Because these elements are not in these movies just to soften the blow of the reality of death. They are also there to teach children what it means to live, to be a good person, a person worthy of God’s gift of life for another trip around the sun, as we ask each year on the High Holidays. The lesson is not just that there are special, chosen, people — like Elsa and Harry with the scar — who have superpowers, and a need to go on a challenging, often dangerous, journey to discover how they must best use them to serve others.
No, the lesson is that we are all Elsa and Harry. We all have superpowers — our own unique spiritual gifts that we are called to use — and it is our task in life to go on challenging journeys find that call. I love that Frozen and so many other things my daughter watches teach this. “We’ve got some friends who depend on us, we’re going to help with whatever they need” sings the cartoon character, Rainbow Ruby, at the beginning of each show. “Thank you Rainbow Ruby,” her magical friends sing back to her at the end. “You really saved the day, you came along and helped us in your very special way.”
I deeply pray that my daughter indeed grows to be a person who finds her own special way to “save the day” for others. But I also live with the pain of knowing that she will not grow up into a world where superheroes always come to save the day. Terrible things will happen. And nothing that I do, no prayer that I make, can stop that from happening. And no matter what happens this year — with the pandemic or the other myriad things that can take our lives as our High Holiday liturgy (and Leonard Cohen) remind us — some day, she will likely witness my own death.
My deep hope is not to spare her that pain, for I know I cannot. Rather, I hope to help her as much as I can to know me in the time we do have together, to know something of how loved she is and of the values that I hold and hope to pass on to her — to know that I really tried as best I could to truly know her.
My own father only lived to be about seven years older than I am now. I had too much pain and anger in me — too many raw wounds from an unhappy childhood — to be open to any real engagement with him while he was alive. This year, on Rosh HaShanah, I will pray that my daughter, and my son who was born only this past Hanukkah, will have a chance to really get to know me and what I stand for — not just time with me, but time where we all have enough joy in our lives that we can be open to each other and to enjoying the miracle that is our being able to take another breath.