Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Do stop believing

cracks have started to appear
A little before she turned 8, Q had a loose tooth succumb to a spoon full of lemon yogurt. As she wrote a note for the Tooth Fairy (asking for both the cash and the tooth to be left, please), Q announced that “There are no such things as fairies.” Instead, a “Tooth Person” exchanged cash for baby teeth. “So some person comes into our house. At night. For your teeth?” we asked. “Yes,” Q said, and finished the note with her name.

My lovely wife and I were both puzzled and a little disappointed by this in-between business. Puzzled because Q didn’t seem bothered by the removal of magic from the story, which in our opinion made it much creepier.* Disappointed because myth management is a lot of work, especially when you reside on the other side of the myth and have little personal investment in its truth. Myths are explanations by way of stories, and keeping the explanations satisfying (for yourself or others) means you have to anticipate the entailments and questions. We were prepared for the obvious: Our kids have grown up in apartments, and we knew they would wonder, after all the usual poems and TV specials, how Santa leaves them gifts in the night without a chimney.** Other questions (obvious now) caught us off guard, such as when they asked a few years ago, “What does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?”***

I’m fine with telling Q and The Boy the truth of these things outright, instead offering them a competing explanation about deserved rewards and encouraged wonder and stuff like that. My lovely wife, to her credit and wisdom, has insisted that our kids come to these truths on their own. She believes that the various fairies and magic bunnies and nocturnal elves can give a great gift in the opportunity to discover their nonexistence. 

This discovery is inevitable. Beliefs and the stories that bind them together tug at each other even as they distribute logical load. Beliefs that don’t square with the stories we tell ourselves tend not to last long. Same with stories that don’t square with beliefs we are reluctant to relinquish. Childhood myths survive until the evidence nags and the desire to know overpowers the desire to believe in their truth or what would allow them to be true. Once doubt arises, a little thinking can quickly erode the myth.

I figured the Tooth Fairy would be the first knocked loose by Q and The Boy since that fairy’s existence and purpose leads to more questions than answers pretty much right away.  (What’s the money for anyway?)  But the Easter Bunny became the first casualty. Its retirement proceeded as many belief revisions do, through a combination of salient empirical evidence and the compulsion to adjust the story to make sense of that evidence. The night before Easter Sunday, my wife and I were filling plastic eggs in our bedroom, as we have done every kid year, with jelly beans and comically small Milky Ways when Q came in saying her room was too hot. My wife quickly (and, therefore, suspiciously) sprang up and threw a blanket over the eggs on the bed, which caused them to bounce and rattle. I took Q quickly back to her room to turn on the fan while trying not to look or sound like I had a mouth full of candy.

Once convinced that Q was back asleep, we finished filling and hiding the eggs in our tiny living room,  and we set out the larger sweets in their baskets. Later, my wife decided we had too many beans left in the bag, and she went back to fill the eggs further. One dropped in the dark.

Q spotted it right away in the morning. She put on that look of hers, the one where she narrows her eyes and smiles, the word ‘clever’ written in the cursive of her lips.

“The Easter Bunny forgot one,” she said. Paused. “What were you two doing last night with all those eggs?”

“What do you think we were doing?” her mother asked back. Lots of pausing. “Who do you think is the Easter Bunny?”

She didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure, caught again in that unsteady state between believing and not believing, between wanting to know and wanting to not know, as the story began to rewrite itself.

We spent the rest of the day pretending noticeably to each other that the Easter Bunny exists, mainly via a running joke about the Easter Bunny saving money with his Walgreens discount card.

I haven’t said much about The Boy during all of this, mainly because he himself didn't say much, even when asked. He is far more comfortable with not knowing than his sister.  Q has a particularly strong desire to know, and she can’t help but think rigorously.

I find myself wondering whether I might have gotten it wrong, whether my picture of Q and The Boy, of us, of myself, mistakes how we are.  Our story has the shape of myth, and I’ve grown comfortable with using it to explain just about everything.

Later that night, when Q and I were alone as her bath ran, she asked, “Are you really the Easter Bunny?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.” I could see that she did.

“Yep, we are.” She nodded. “Are you disappointed?”

“No.” A pause. “Not really.”

“Well, at least you know no giant magic rabbit comes into our house at night.”

Q said no more about it.  She stepped into the bath and unfolded herself under the water, her toes tapping the overflow plate, her head now almost against the opposite end.  She looked big, and bigger.

After their baths, Q and The Boy joined us on our bed, eating jelly beans straight from the Easter Bunny’s bag.

I don’t miss what they have given up.  I prefer to work on this story.

*Some regular person sneaks in at night? How does he/she know when you’ve lost a tooth? Do we all have a mouth stalker? Also see note ***.
**The doorman knows him and lets him in, we said; he lands his sleigh on the roof deck and uses a magic key that opens all locks, electronic and otherwise, etc.
***I can’t remember our answer at the time. We might have just said that we didn’t know and then tried to deflect by asking why they (Q and The Boy) like to keep their teeth. In any event, I’m convinced no good answer to this question can be given.

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