By Paula Younger
When I was ten, my cousin told me, “Did you know Grandma is really our step-grandma?” I am the youngest of four in a Catholic family of loving people who tend to omit important information or lie to avoid discomfort. But my cousin, who didn’t follow my immediate family’s rule, leaned in and said our mothers’ mother died from cancer when they were young. This seemed suspiciously like the time my older siblings convinced me to take a bite of a banana peel, but my cousin convinced me with a detail. She grabbed a strand of her hair and said, “She had blonde hair, like me.”
I pestered Mom with questions until she showed me pictures of the grandmother I never knew, but Mom still didn’t open up about our family secrets.
When I was twelve, the same cousin said our uncle Frank had AIDS. It was 1988, when our Catholic community saw AIDS as a punishment from God. I waited for Mom to tell me. I even wondered if my cousin had been wrong, but then Mom took my siblings and I to our uncle’s house in Houston. Uncle Frank had been our fun, young uncle, ready with gifts and adventures. But his bones were visible beneath his skin. Black bags hung beneath his hollowed eyes. Lesions mottled his pasty arms. My sisters were eighteen and seventeen, my brother fifteen. They helped our uncle and his partner when they could. They didn’t act bored even though we rarely left our uncle’s house. Their normal too-good-for-everything expressions had been dropped. They avoided eye contact with me. They knew and had known for a while.
I cornered Mom. “When were you going to tell me he has AIDS?”
She looked surprised. “Baby girl, why would you want to know?”
Baby. That was me. Somehow I had to be protected from knowing anything and I was the one who wanted to know everything. Mom repeatedly told my sisters and brother not to tell the baby, no matter how old I became. But there was a difference between innocence and obliviousness, as well as protection and avoidance. Did she really think I wouldn’t notice the dying uncle in the room? I decided lies were a way people avoided feeling uncomfortable. But I would have no problem with being uncomfortable with the truth, or making everyone else uncomfortable.
I promised myself that when I had children, I would emulate the best aspects of my mother’s parenting, but build on it with honesty. My children would have a happy childhood, complete with the necessary lies of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but in all other matters, I would arm them with information. Unlike my mother who lured me to the doctor’s office by saying I would get a lollipop and instead the nurse surprised me with a shot, I briefed my four-year-old about his upcoming immunizations. Evan sat in his car seat, looking serious. I said no one likes needles and that shots hurt, but just for a moment. He thought about it and then pointed to his right thigh. “The nurse can give me a shot if it’s in this leg, and if she says she’s sorry.”
Evan began cutting flowers from our yard and then putting them into vases. I caught my husband replacing dying roses with fresh ones. “He takes such good care of them, I don’t want him to be upset when they die,” Jason said. I made sure the flowers died and then threw them away in front of Evan. I told him after you cut flowers, they start to die, no matter how much water you give them. If you take good care of them, they last longer.
At one bedtime I told Evan I’d checked the entire house for monsters. “But what if a bad guy opens our door and comes in when you and Dad are sleeping?” he asked. I said our house alarm has a special alert for monsters. I figured it was true, in a way. We have ADT. But when I told my husband, Jason arched his eyebrows and said, “So you lied?”
When our dog died, Evan asked where Bentley’s body was. I said he was being turned into ash, which is like sand. “Even his bones?” Evan asked. I confirmed it. “I want to play with Bentley’s sand bones,” Evan said and mimed playing in a sandbox. I vetoed that and thought we were at a basic understanding, but then Evan looked concerned and asked, “But Mama, how do we pet ashes?”
Fortunately my daughter is one and mostly mimics words, but Evan, true to his four-year-old age, asks constant questions, especially about my mom’s death.
Him: “How did she die?”
Me: “A truck ran into her car outside of our driveway.”
“Will we die outside of our driveway?”
“That was in the country and cars and trucks speed on that road. Our road isn’t like that.”
“If a truck runs into our car will we die?”
“She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and her head hit the road. We wear our seatbelts and that’s why you wear your helmet when you ride your bike. You protect your head.”
Each time Evan asks about her death, I flash back to outside my family’s quarter-mile driveway in northern Colorado, surrounded by cows, horses, and open fields. I stand among the police officers, searching for Mom’s car, not realizing it was in the ditch. On holidays and the anniversary of her death, my children and I take flowers to her grave and the spot outside of the driveway where she died. I show pictures and tell my children stories, like the time Mom lied to get me on my first roller coaster ride. In the tunnel I had asked, “Why’s it so dark?” then the tall hill loomed into view and I yelled, “This is a roller coaster, you liar!” Mom laughed with every dropping, lurching move. I screamed and screamed and then started laughing too, leaning into her reassuring weight. When I complained about her lying, Mom said, “You would’ve never gotten on, baby girl.” I want my children to know she was more than someone who died in a ditch, but that detail tends to overshadow the stories about her life.
Despite her brother having died from it, I never heard Mom say the word AIDS. In my early 20’s, a year before her death, I took her to see Tony Kushner’s play, “Angels in America,” hoping she would finally confide in me. Outside the theatre, Mom’s face glowed in the streetlight. “I really felt for Louis,” she said, about the man who left his dying lover. Shocked, I said she would never leave someone who was dying. “You don’t know how hard it is,” she said. I pushed, asking what she would do if one of her children was dying. Her face flushed. “I will never have to see one of my children die,” she said. I brought up Uncle Frank—how she had been there for him. I had taken pride that my Catholic relatives didn’t abandon my gay uncle, at a time when many people did. “I wasn’t there at the end, baby girl. I couldn’t be,” she said. After her death, I found an unfinished note to her brother: “I’m afraid I can’t go there and tell you it is all right for you to leave me. I know I should relent and give you up but I can’t. No one can ever be like you. I will always, always love you.”
One day, Evan walked up to me and said, “Your mama shouldn’t have died in a car accident. She should have worn her seatbelt.” It was jarring to hear him voice the anger and blame I haven’t allowed myself to feel. Evan was authoritative and assured, and he seemed more honest than me.
The next morning Evan smiled over his bowl of cereal and said, “We should drive to the ditch. Grandma Arlene is waiting for us. Her owies have healed by now.” I said some owies can’t heal. He shook his fists in the air. “Doesn’t she want to see me and Celia?”
He started waking from bad dreams, saying things like, “Why did you throw away the dead flowers?” On the way to soccer practice, he said, “Don’t get in an accident or we’ll die.” He yelled at other cars to get away from us. Whenever a large truck drove alongside us, Evan asked, “Is that the truck that killed Grandma Arlene?” “No, not that one, baby,” I said and gripped the steering wheel tighter. On the way to school Evan said, “Maybe Grandma is under the road. Maybe we’re driving over her.” Then one morning Evan looked shocked and said, “But if you die, Celia and I won’t have a Mama.”
Panicked, I blurted, “I will always be here for you.”
Evan said with a big smile, “But we all die someday, right? That’s what you said.”
I frantically researched four-year-olds to figure out how much I had scarred my child and found out too late they’re naturally fascinated with death. I worried I had given Evan too much truth, that some details should remain unsaid. I began phrasing my answers, trusting in his intellect but not overwhelming him.
Now I understand lies are not always cowardly. Sometimes they’re necessary. The hard truth of traumatic loss exposes the daily dangers and ways we can die and it’s exhausting. No one can live always on alert, so we lie to ourselves. We need the lie to live.
My mom suffered too many early deaths of the people she loved. She didn’t want to deal with it, but she also didn’t want her children focused on death and fears. I understand that now, so I’ve adopted the necessary lies, no matter how squeamish they make my superstitious mind feel. I try to channel who I was before—the one who used to ride our horses barebacked and laughed if I got tossed off; the fifteen-year-old who stole her parents’ car keys and drove illegally after they went to bed; the one that happily went on long walks in foreign countries alone, hoping for an adventure. My mother’s lies and forced calm made my fearlessness possible. Then she died outside our driveway and nothing felt safe.
I had built my beliefs on the idea that truth was protection. It armed you. It freed you. But I didn’t realize how it could frighten. Now I no longer see them as lies, but instead as parent proverbs—the things we hope will be true. I fight my instincts, snuggle next to Evan before he sleeps and say low into his ear, “You are safe. Dad, Celia and I are safe. Our house is safe. We will always be together.” His body relaxes in my arms while my heart rate speeds up. I keep my statements simple so I won’t mess them up. I breathe in his fresh, childhood smell. Even when Evan’s dirty he still smells new, unencumbered. I say, “My sweet kid, I will always come back to you,” even though I feel nauseous.
When he reminds me that I told him we will all die someday, I say, “But I will be old and you will be an adult and you will not need me anymore. You will know I’m dying and you will be with me and say goodbye.” When I drop Evan off at preschool, I say, “I’ll see you at the end of the day,” and not think about the too frequent school shootings. When we see a car accident, I preemptively say, “The people are fine; most people survive car accidents,” and ignore the tightening in my chest, my breath changing, and the shock on the slumped people’s faces while they’re being examined by EMT’s, talking to police officers, realizing how vulnerable they are.
I weave a protective veil, word by word, so thick that my children will live their lives. They need that blissful state where their biggest worry is what they are going to play that day. The more I say these parent proverbs, the more I become used to them. I tell myself I’m not jinxing my family, that these comforting sayings are more like my childhood prayers, uttering wishes to an unseen, benevolent entity. I see now that my mother’s lies were connected to hope. She wanted less heartache for her children. She wanted us believe in a safe world so we could ski down mountains, swim in oceans, and forget about mortality. We have seen what the world can give us and know that in any moment our family and our lives can change forever, but we hope, and believe, that it won’t happen to us.
Paula Younger’s writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Harper Collins’ 52 Stories, The Rattling Wall, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and The Nervous Breakdown. She earned my MFA from the University of Virginia, and received the Henry Hoyns and Bronx Writers Center fellowships. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and the University of Denver.