So imagine my surprise when I was working one night and saw Cherise and Iris descending the staircase at 8:15pm (Iris is usually down right around 8pm). When I looked at them, I saw them taking each step slowly and Iris had a very sad look on her face. My first instinct was "shoot, she broke something and Cherise is making her come down here to apologize". I started wondering where my iPhone was and had visions that Iris was playing with it and dropped it down the toilet or something like that. As they came closer, I asked "What happened?" Cherise was the first to respond: "Well, we just finished another chapter and Iris wanted to talk to you about it."
Oh boy. I knew exactly what was next and I would’ve preferred the iPhone down the toilet.
You see, we decided to up the level of books that we were reading to Iris. So we started reading her "Charlotte’s Web", E.B. White’s story of a pig named Wilbur who’s life was spared thanks to the ingenuity of a clever spider named Charlotte. Cherise and I had alternated reading chapters of this book and, at some point, I think we both remembered that Charlotte dies near the end of the story. Neither of us were sure how this would play with Iris. After all, this was a girl who once cried at "On Top Of Spaghetti", showing empathy for a meatball. I repeat: a meatball! But that was a year ago and she’s become a much more vivacious fun-loving kid now than she was then. Perhaps, along with it, Iris had learned to manage her emotions a little better. I was wrong.
Iris was heartbroken. She got closer to me and, in a cracking voice that I could barely hear, said "Charlotte died, Daddy". What do you say about the untimely demise of a storybook spider? I brought her close and hugged her tight. "I know, sweetie. It’s OK." She started to cry a little more. Not the crying that goes with her occasional tantrum, but one that serves as a response to an ache deep inside. Whenever she’s crying during tantrums, I always try to let her know that there are times when crying is OK and other times when crying isn’t OK. I rarely have the opportunity to encourage crying, but this was clearly it. Cherise and I told her it was OK to cry and she did so. I couldn’t believe the empathy she was showing. Then she asked "Will she come back? If we read it again, will she live next time?" A part of me wanted to take the easy road–"Sure, next time she survives and everything will be great!" Then, Cherise and I would be required to re-read the story and ad-lib the final couple of chapters. No, as much as that would’ve protected some level of innocence in my first-born, I couldn’t do it. "No sweetie, Charlotte isn’t coming back." She began to cry some more and I asked Cherise if they read the last chapter. When she said no, I tried another tactic: "Iris, there’s one more chapter and that chapter is very exciting. It’s my favorite chapter!" As I recalled, Charlotte’s children were born soon after Charlotte’s death and Wilbur would befriend them. I think that helped a little, but suddenly the pressure was on for the final chapter. Could E.B. White provide some solace for a four-year old who fell in love with one of his characters?
Well, we read the story the next night and, while it was a good chapter, there was no way it made up for the previous chapter. Alas, Charlotte was still gone and Wilbur would never be as close to anyone as he was to her. As we put the book away and I went over to turn out the light, I glanced over at Iris and spotted the tears welling in her eyes again. Scientists would probably scoff at my theory, but I’m convinced that there is some weird biological telekinesis that exists between parents and children that make parents feel everything their child feels. I gave Iris a big hug and told her I’d see her the next morning. As I came downstairs and sat in my chair, I thought about the tears in her eyes and I confess that I began to cry as well. Not over the lost spider (I got over that 30 years ago and confess that it didn’t have quite the same effect on me), but rather this compassion that my daughter was showing over a book. A BOOK! Can you teach people to feel? I don’t think so–I believe it’s born in you or it isn’t. For all things kids do to make the bond feel stronger, I can’t remember a time I was so proud of her and I loved her so much.
So there’s the blog entry. Or so it seemed. It turns out that sometimes, prologues to my stories evolve faster than I can author the story itself. In this case, a few days later, when we asked Iris what she wanted for her bedtime story, she said "the next-to-last chapter". Confused, I responded "you mean the last chapter, right?" Iris was adamant. "No, the next-to-last chapter where Charlotte dies". Huh? At first, I started thinking that Iris was entering her "Goth" phase a wee bit early. But when she explained herself, she said sometimes she wanted to feel sad. She’d rather experience difficult emotions than no emotions. I don’t know what this says about her, but as parents, the journey begins. I expect this consigns me to a lifetime of chick flicks (to paraphrase Paul Giamatti from the movie "Sideways", "I am NOT WATCHING ‘BEACHES’!"). Perhaps I can focus her on "Brian’s Song" (about Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo) or "Pride of the Yankees" (about New York Yankee Lou Gehrig). One way or another, I think I’ll have plenty of doses of meatballs and Charlottes to keep empathizing with my little girl for years to come.