How do you teach children what is real? Or do you let them figure it out on their own? How do you do that when the first five years of your child’s life they lived in many different places, with many different people, and you have no baby book? Instead, your archive is a thick blue file of assessments, court documents, case- and treatment plans.
As a parent, I am a radical truth teller. I’ve chosen to answer my son’s questions about guns and bombs, his birth parents, truthfully and in a fair amount of detail. We learned early on that to offer an abridged explanation leads to more questions. He will drag the truth out of us. I don’t always know that I’m doing it right. I fear it makes him anxious. But lying to him for the sake of fantasy, even something fun, like the tooth fairy, seems wrong, and to be honest a man coming in your house late at night to leave presents and eat sweets, however good-spirited, always made me uneasy. We’ve worked so hard to make sense of his history.
I used to have an imaginary friend named Granella. At Ms. Mona’s house. She protected me when they whupped me. she whupped them back. But my dad killed her. He shot her with the gun. But I grabbed the gun and pointed it at something else. She had a last name. It was Bell. Granella Bell. She took me to Disney. She was married. To a girl. Her name was Grenella Bell too. She’s dead now. She’s in the ground. She’s in heaven if you believe that.
My imagination saved me, and it was also a dark and spooky place. The nighttime, full of wrong things. In the summer, in the daytime, I would read ghost stories, lying in bed or curled in odd positions, hanging off the edge of the couch or pretzeled in the closet with a flashlight, sucking the cream out of Oreos or the salt off potato chips, feeling them go soft with spit. At night, though, the images would overwhelm me, and I would creep alongside my mother, or, pre-empting my later fear, make a pallet next to her bed and fall asleep there.
I still remember a few terrifying nightmares I had as a child. Once, I dreamt that I woke up and saw ET standing in the hallway, between my parents’ room and mine. For years I was convinced it was real, more real that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Another time I dreamt my little sister jumped out the window, the big window over the stairs. My other sister dreamed that the dial tone talked to her, said “I will see you at six o’clock.”
My own son dreams sometimes that I am going to kill him, or that someone with a gun is coming to put us in the dumpster, or that we want to get rid of him, send him away.
I cannot protect him from these night creatures.
We moved to the country recently. There are children on the adjacent homestead. For awhile they played ball or shared snacks through the fence. I don’t remember the first time they came over, but now someone is always hollering at the fence. The middle brother is ten. He tells my boy that he can turn into a coyote at night. That’s why he has so many scrapes on his legs, my boy reports. And he said he would come howl at my window.
Is this fun for him? Does he know this is a game? His nightmares begin again.
The older boy also says there is a metal monster under the house. The metal monster is a lady and I imagine her, a shimmering pool of mercury, under the deck. Scaring off the dogs and the snakes that nest under there. I make as if to check. But she’s not there. She’s on vacation.
(I feel like he’s fucking with me. Or is he trying to protect his fantasy, his weird boy-space of creepy stories?)
I remember all the things I was afraid of, as a child. The aliens from the movie Mars Attacks, their bulging external brains. ET. Poltergeists. Men under the bed that would grab my ankles. It was only last spring when I started taking anti-anxiety medication that I stopped checking under the bed, the couch before I went to sleep.
The everyday language of the body, which is science but seems like magic: My child’s pain is cortisol, shot through my heart. My knowing in the dark where the cord for the light is: proprioception, body memory. My longing to hold this body that hurts, its twitching and sharp angles, elbows and knees: is attachment, is love, is skin-to-skin.
I dream, for once, about the mother who grew him. In the dream I can choose to meet her.
We’ve been talking about Jesus a lot lately.
Some people believe that Jesus came back to life after he was killed.
But we don’t believe that?
I don’t believe that, no. But you can if you want to.
Why did Jesus get killed?
Because he told people to love each other and to listen to love rather than bad laws. The empire wanted to keep people separate and scared and they didn’t like what Jesus was teaching.
Like Donald Trump wants to build a wall?
Yes, like that.
When a little boy at the school died last year in a car crash, J’s therapist asked me what we’d told him about the afterlife. Some people believe in heaven and some people believe in reincarnation and some people believe when you’re dead you’re just dead. No, she said. You need to tell him what you believe. You need to figure it out and tell him. As if Jasmine and I are this unit with shared spiritual beliefs. (As if we know what we believe.)
Traditionally, parents tell their children what to believe as if it is truth, and then eventually they stop, they question you or believe something different. This is part of child development, of moving from the small sphere of the family to the larger sphere of public life. I work with teenagers, and they talk all the time about values clashes with their parents. (My parents don’t believe I’m trans. My parents voted for Donald Trump.)
We did make him stop believing in hell, though. We told him his old foster mom was wrong, because hell is wrong.
On Maundy Thursday when I walk the stations of the cross I feel something. That Jesus is a story of all suffering, all oppression. That it’s such a sad fucking story. I think of the sermon from years ago. At the heart of the crucifixion was a bunch of people who just lost their friend. Grief is senseless, being knocked to your knees with longing. Destruction is so ugly.
J asks me did the have to chase Jesus, to find and catch him. I said no.
Why didn’t he run away? I take a deep breath.
You know what a prophet is? Of course he doesn’t. Well, some people believe there are those who can tell the future. In the Bible there are prophets that said that would happen, that Jesus would be killed.
But that’s not true?
I don’t think so. Because if there is a God, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen.
So why didn’t he run away?
I don’t know.
Jesus is a story of what we do with loss: we make a story. I think sometimes about theology and attachment. About parenting. About unconditional love and acceptance—attachment to a good-enough caregiver. Love each other as I have loved you. We learn to love by first being loved.
For someone who struggles with feeling good enough or worthy of love, this idea of the divine is what I need. Knowing what I know about attachment and development—I can think of God—the fat femme god of my dreams, as that caregiver, rocking and soothing, providing vestibular and proprioceptive input. And a tender, queer Jesus, longhaired and sad.
At the heart of the Jesus story is a tremendous loss—a loss that represents, if you want it to, if you go to a leftist church full of agnostics and ex-Baptists and low-key Zen Buddists, all other urgent losses in our world. Water, violence. Native habitat. Honeybees. Loss of black lives to state violence at home. Loss of brown lives to state violence elsewhere. The refugees, turned away. A man trudging to his death, increasingly broken. It’s unbearably sad, if you stop to think about it.
The magic of the story is that he isn’t really dead. That he comes back. Of course this seems like magic and it’s not what I believe. The real work of resurrection—of love– is to keep going. It’s a nice story—a nice fantasy—but the real magic is that the work of the world gets done by humans. Those who are left. By parents and teachers and farmers, therapists and sweet hearted ministers who don’t tell you what to be believe, witches and best friends and children who think they are coyotes.
Illustrations by Josiah.