We went on holiday to the Marlborough Sounds for eight days. It was nice. Actually, it was really good. We got up reasonably early one day last week and drove our car down to the Inter-Islander Terminal, handed across our ticket to a man in a booth and parked in the long lines of other cars, and SUVs and camper vans waiting to board. As we were arriving the ferry was just coming into Wellington, and Dads piled out of their cars to take pictures and buoy the spirits of fractious children who had already been waiting in parked cars for too long. Lining up to take a photo myself, and buoy Eleanor’s spirits I began to think about a few things. The main thing that had been playing on my mind was the conversation I had had with Eleanor when I was giving her a bath the previous night.
Eleanor has a bath each night and likes to use as much soap as possible. Mainly she likes to use up the soap by chasing it around the water with her hands and telling me that it is slippery rather than in industriously cleaning herself. The day before we went on holiday Cathy had stuck the last little lozenge of the old soap onto the top of a new block. Eleanor noticed this. She noticed that the little soap had once been a big soap. She asked me, “has the soap died?”
I said no, it hadn’t died, but it had been used up.
Her next question seemed to come out of nowhere,
“Did my grandfather die?”
“My father died a long time ago.”
“He was very sick.”
I didn’t know how to answer this.
Eleanor is at a stage where she asks why in endless, diminishing circles that tend to make everything meaningless. She can force even the most willing and engaged adult to capitulate, throw up their hands and say “BECAUSE!” in under a minute. I give you the following example:
Scene: Daddy is innocently eating a banana in the kitchen. Eleanor sidles up to Daddy’s leg.
“What are you eating?” she asks.
“Because it tastes nice.”
“Because it, um, because it’s sweet.”
(struggling slightly) “Because it has sugar in it.”
(struggling desperately) “Because it, ah, it… wants to be eaten?”
Eleanor in her “why?” moods has helped me to understand why the Athenians asked Socrates if he wouldn’t mind killing himself and leaving them all alone. If she asked me how a banana became sweet I would feel so much more comfortable. Not that I know the answer to that question off the top of my head, but I feel fairly confident I could find out pretty quickly. Science tells us. Why a banana is sweet on the other hand…. Of course, it’s not bananas I’m really worried about, it’s Eleanor’s ability to take me to unexpected places; places that represent some of the most profound head scratchers that have bothered humanity since time immemorial (again, I’m not talking about bananas). After all, why do people, healthy, decent-enough people, get sick and die long before their time? It’s not far from the age old dilemma called the problem of evil which theologians have contorted themselves over for centuries.
So what did I reply when Eleanor asked me why my father got sick and died a long time ago?
I said, “I don’t know.”
“Did he see a doctor?”
Eleanor, who always gets a lolly when she goes to the doctor, then asked, “Did he get a jelly bean?”
After a little splashing about in the bath Eleanor looked at me and said, “I’m not going to die.”
It clutched at my heart to hear her say that, and to imagine her old, and me not there to hold her. I gave her a cuddle and said, “no”.
Well, what should you say? I don’t understand these things. If you asked me to explain life I would flail around, and point at a diagram of a heart, and quickly run out of ideas, because honestly I can’t even explain a heart. How it works I could manage with a bit of boning up, but why it beats, and what starts it beating? Not a chance. What is the point of that muscle going on and on with itself until it wears out, or it wears its vessel out?
After the bath it was quite hard to get Eleanor to go to bed. In the end I had to lie down with her in her bed in the dark. She wrapped an arm around me and I lay still listening to the sound of her breathing change, feeling the heat of her breath on my cheek, and her little heart pounding against my shoulder. After a few minutes she stirred and rolled on to her back and said, in a small tired voice, “bye, bye”. I said bye bye, stood up and slipped out of the room.
A few days before we started our holiday, and the bath described above, I went to see a move called Creation with my mother. I knew nothing about it, and went mainly because I didn’t want to see the other movies that were playing. It was about Charles Darwin. It was very good and I went and got the book that it was based on out of the library. The book is called Annie’s Box (in England) and Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution (in America), and is written by Randall Keynes, a great-great grandson of Darwin. I also took A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects back down off the shelf at home to reread.
I thought it might be time for me to try and figure out, again, some more of the how and why of life.