When I was little, my parents would play a record by the blues singer Josh White. It was one of our favorites, and I give them credit for teaching me about great music early on.
One day–I must have been about six–I was listening to the Josh White record and drawing a picture in the living room. A song came on that I hadn’t noticed before:
“Number 12 train took my baby…I couldn’t keep from cryin’.”
This seemed to be the saddest lyric in the world. My mom was working in the garden, and heard me crying. She ran in, brushing soil from her hands, and asked me what was wrong.
“The train took his baby!” I wailed.
My mom explained that the singer’s “baby” wasn’t a real baby. It was his girlfriend. The song meant that his girlfriend left him. That’s why he’s sad.
I cheered up right away. A girlfriend who’d left? That was no biggie. But a lost baby–now that would be worth mourning.
Another day, around the same time, my mom and I were eating McDonald’s, a huge treat. As we sat in the hard plastic booth, we started talking about a family friend, an old woman, who’d died recently.
“She had a good long life,” my mom said.
“Why did she die?” I asked.
“Well, she got sick,” Mom explained.
I could tell there was more to the story. “If she didn’t get sick, would she still die?”
Mom chewed carefully and swallowed, then took a sip of soda. “Well, dying happens to everyone, Anni. It’s part of life. Everyone dies someday.”
“Will you die someday?” I asked.
“Yes, after I get very old.”
“What about me? Will I die?”
I started crying at the same time that I heard my mom’s answer–“Yes, sweetie, but not for a really long time!” The french fries in my mouth lost their flavor, and I swallowed them just to get more air to wail with.
My mom came over to my side of the booth, and held me until I calmed down. It didn’t take long. I was six. The thought of death was too big to stick in my head. It just passed over me, like a shadow.
I’m glad she told me the truth. I hope, if one of my friends’ kids asks me that question, I’ll know how to answer. And I hope I don’t get blamed if they cry.