The tooth fairy is notoriously cheap in our house: Her going rate is 25 cents — one shiny silver quarter — per tooth. Yesterday, while at school, my 7-year-old daughter lost her eighth tooth. She hopped off the bus with her discarded baby tooth sealed in a white paper envelope. That night, she tucked the tooth into the tiny pocket of the tooth pillow that once belonged to me, and shoved the pillow under her three bed pillows. She worried that the tooth fairy might get crushed; I reassured her that no matter how many pillows one sleeps upon, it’s impossible to crush magic.
This morning, that daughter — usually the last to be dragged from her bed — was the first one up. I heard thirteen thuds as she jumped down the stairs. She raced into the kitchen: “Mommy, look!” As she uncurled her hand, I saw…two shiny silver quarters sitting in her palm.
“Wow!” I stuttered. “You got two quarters?”
“Yup!” she beamed. “I wonder why.”
After breakfast, as the girls got ready for school, I cornered my husband in the kitchen. “Did you put another quarter under her pillow?” I hissed.
“No, why would I do that?” he answered in all sincerity. And I knew he was telling the truth; tooth fairy duty isn’t in his job description, and he’d been out late at a meeting the previous night, anyway.
So, how to explain that additional quarter? How to account for my daughter awaking to find, in addition to the Vermont quarter I’d tucked into her tooth pillow the night before, an Idaho quarter as well? Surely there’s a rational explanation; either that, or the tooth fairy is messing with me. Whatever the case, inflation has just hit the tooth market in our house.
In my experience, parenthood is filled with moments like this: happenings that I can’t quite explain, questions to which I have no answer. There are the silly things, like the tooth fairy mystery, or what happens to all those missing socks, or why, when I put our winter coats in the dryer with two tennis balls, I found only one tennis ball when I removed the coats.
Then there are the serious things. The same daughter who brought home her baby tooth from school brings home other things from school, as well: worries, slang, rumors she’s overheard. Earlier this week, she came out of her room long after we’d said goodnight. She was afraid, she said.
“Why?” we asked.
“Because a boy at school said that sometimes people shoot themselves in the head.”
And just like that, I found myself trying to explain depression and suicide to my 7-year-old at 9 o’clock at night.
In retrospect, I could’ve skirted the whole issue by turning it into a gun safety lesson: “Yes, sweetie, sometimes accidents happen with guns. And that is why you should never play with a gun if you see one at a friend’s house.” Done, and off to bed.
But that would’ve been dishonest; I knew as well as she did that her issue was not with guns. Her issue was with death.
My husband and I flailed around for a few minutes. “Well, honey, you know, sometimes people just feel really, really sad. They feel like they don’t have any hope. And so they think it’s better if they’re not alive anymore.”
“But then they’re dead.”
“That’s right, but they think maybe it’s better to be dead.”
She stared at us a minute, then said, “You know, that’s doesn’t make me feel any better.”
And she was absolutely right.
Because, frankly, suicide is no place for moral tiptoeing, especially when discussing it with children. I want to teach my daughters to respect people with different viewpoints, appearances, and lifestyles. But I do not ever want my daughters to have the impression that it’s a valid life choice to kill themselves. (PLEASE NOTE: This is very different from saying that I lack sympathy for those who do.)
But how to explain all that to a 7-year-old?
I didn’t do it very well, and I’m sure we’ll have the same discussion again — also late at night, no doubt. But I did find some words that surprised myself, which is what often happens in these cases.
I said: “You know, life is kind of like a story that you tell yourself: The way you live your life depends on the kind of story you believe you’re in. And, you know how stories can have sad endings, or they can have happy endings?”
She nodded; our family’s big on stories.
“Well, people who shoot themselves in the head believe that their story has a sad ending. But I hope that’s not the story you’ll tell yourself; I hope you’ll live like your story has a happy ending.”
The “what-ifs” started then, as expected.
“But what if you’re really sick? What if you’re going to die anyway?”
These are excellent questions, and my response to them will always be: Everything depends on where you place your ending.
If death is The End — the finish line, the full stop — then we all have sad endings.
But if you believe that there’s something more than death, then all the tragedies, illnesses, and injustices life throws at you — including death itself — are just the equivalent of the various trials necessary to any good story: challenges that refine and prepare us for the ultimate ending, the one that’s happy.
Obviously I am touching closely on my family’s religious beliefs here. And when I said these things to my daughter, as often happens in these cases, I was also speaking to myself.
How can you be sure that what you believe is true? you ask.
My daughter asked the same thing, certainly not for the last time.
My answer: I can’t be absolutely sure that what I believe is true. Can anybody?
I can give you plenty of sound theological and historical arguments. But those will only take us so far, because I am talking about faith. And while faith may be logical, it can’t be explained satisfactorily by logic.
Faith, by its very definition, must be believed rather than known. Faith is not fact — which makes it no less true, in my opinion. (Oxygen is not a carrot, either, but both exist.)
So perhaps I can’t explain very well, either to you or to my daughter, but I can submit this:
If none of us really knows for absolute certain where the ending lies — if we’re all just grasping towards it as best we can — isn’t it worth living as if our stories have happy endings?