September 5, 2016
“So, everyone has a story?” she asks from her seat on the toilet while looking up at me with giant, piercing, eyes.
Though seven-years-old, she is in a peculiarly clingy phase of late, therefore, voiding has become a communal event. It’s not my favorite developmental phase, but I love her madly, so here I am in the bathroom with my kid years after I thought I would have to lend bathroom support.
“What was your question again? I’m sorry…”
“So, everyone has a story?” she repeats, undaunted.
I’m nervous because I have no idea where this is going, but it seems like it’s gonna be a whopper, and there is another family with two-year-old twins waiting for us to start dinner.
“Um, yes….” I finally reply.
“So, is the story written down ahead of time, and God knows everything we are going to say or do and that’s just what we do? Or do we make up our story?”
“Damn,” and “Dear God help me,” loop through my brain about twenty times before I finally respond with the best I have at the moment:
“Well, Grace, that is a great question.”
“And sometimes when I ask a great question, you put it on Facebook?”
“Because you like to share great questions?”
(I’m hoping short answers bring this full-circle quickly, efficiently, and truthfully.)
“So, what’s the answer?” she presses.
“It’s just such a great question….”
She stares at me. She does not flinch.
I’m not getting out of this. Not this question. Not on this night. Not on this kid’s watch. I do manage to divert her, however, which simply creates another string of questions, because I am no match for her.
“Mama, why is it a great question?”
“Because it’s a fundamental question.”
I regret it as soon as it shoots out of my mouth, because I know with complete certainty that I just created ten additional questions, and I am starting to rack up quite a list of things to answer. I laugh, but only internally, so as not to piss her off. I laugh because, I love that she asks these questions. I do. I deeply, truly, love it. But sometimes you can’t leave people with toddler twins hanging because you’re in the john discussing predeterminism with your second grader.
“What is a fundamental question?”
I knew it was coming. It’s all my fault. I did this to myself.
“A fundamental question is the kind of question which spawns all the other questions. It’s the kind of question that creates a bunch of other questions, and a bunch of possible answers.”
“And great questions make you ask your Mama other questions, like I’m doing to you now?”
I laugh. I can’t help it.
“And people think different ways about it?”
“Yes. People have been fighting about that question for millennia, if not forever, Grace.”
“What do you think?’
“I think that we have free-will, but that…”
Oh, boy. We are still in the bathroom. She peed five minutes ago.
“Free-will means we have a choice about the story.”
“So you think it is not written?”
“Well, I think that some things happen that are beyond our control, but that we have a choice in how we respond to them.”
I refrain from telling her that although I certainly had ideas on the topic prior to this conversation, I had never before been able to sum it up in one sentence. So, I’m feeling somewhat satisfied about that. A respite from the dog-paddling I am doing to try to answer these questions in a second-grade appropriate manner. It’s not a revolutionary answer that I provide her; I am not the only person that has thought this way by a long shot. But, well, sometimes you don’t know EXACTLY what you think until someone gets you in a philosophical corner. And sometimes that person is seven-year-old girl you brought into this world. And, like all great philosophers, she is pondering the meaning of life while sitting on the toilet, spewing out fully-formed questions as if they were nothing. This question did not just cross her mind this minute. This question tossed around in her wee mind for a spell before being directed my way. And I had NO IDEA that this was happening in the mind of my child.
This realization leaves me feeling like a jackass for being impatient with her at times. (Lots of times.) I stand before her feeling like a heel, because she is just a little girl that asks big girl questions and is trying her best figure it all out.
Like all of us, really.
“So, I make my story up myself, but somethings I can’t make up?”
“That’s right. Well, that’s what I think, at least.”
“That’s not so hard. Why do people fight about it?”
“That, Grace, I truly do not know.”
And then she lets me off the hook. “I don’t know” generally does not work, but it did tonight, and I am grateful.
But now I have some questions, dammit, and I’m fairly certain that no one is going to attempt answer them.
I have questions, and I also have a story. A story that took a wild, horrific, turn on August 6, 2013, and nose-dived from there for a couple of years. No one is going to trade stories with me, and that’s OK; I wouldn’t wish my story on anyone. And this is, I suppose, why I answered Grace’s question the way that I did, whether or not it is true.
I MUST believe as I believe in order to maintain a will to live.
Look, there are others with stories far worse than mine, so I do count my blessings. I really do.
Grace’s sister’s death was certainly not of my free will. Never in a zillion years would I have willed for Alice to die so young. I would never wish death-of-a child for anyone. I suppose the unexpected, unexplained, death of one’s child could lead one to become aligned with predeterminism.
Yet, in the wake of this titanic loss, I quickly realized that I firmly believe that I have some choice in how I respond to what was not of my free will. But even my response was not entirely of my own free-will; I would not, and did not, choose PTSD. I would not choose PTSD for anyone.
But in some areas, I do have choice. I can choose to share my experience, or not. I can choose to lean into the pain so that I can come out on the other side, or not. I can accept help, or not. I can learn to find strength in the overwhelming vulnerability, or not. I can choose to memorialize my departed daughter, or not. I can choose to share those memories with her sister, or not. I can choose to open myself to love again, or not. I can choose to wall up behind my own pain, or to reach through my pain in attempt to help others and be helped by others.
I can choose to answer these questions for myself, and Grace, or I can go numb and hide from the questions.
So, I stand in the bathroom for ten minutes, answering free-will versus predeterminism questions from my seven-year-old daughter as she voids. I do my best to answer them.
We exit the bathroom holding hands, off to make our story the best possible story in spite of the terrible plot points that came our way.
I’m not going to lie: I am hoping for some bathroom humor to balance the bathroom philosophy from time to time. But when I get the questions, I will answer them, rather than leave her in a void as she voids.