The Family Tree Goes Up And Down

Explaining death and rebirth to a child

Ornamental magnolia tree. Aubrey Beardsley, 1896.

Our daughter asked whether we’ll die. Disney seems to kill most parents within five minutes so it’s a relevant question. I said yes, but not for a long long long time. Then she asked the more relevant question.

“Will I be alone?”

I had to think about this. This is also the central Disney horror. The child alone. It is what monsters do, what America does. Separate children from parents. It is the most immediate and urgent fear.

Like most kids' questions, I’m making this up on the spot. I fast forward in my mind to when she is older, old like me. A-ha!

“When you’re older, you and your brother will have children. And the tree will go like this.”

I flay out my hands, like the branches of a tree.

“I’ll have my babies, and thambi’s babies,” she says.

Yes, I say. If you want to.

The family tree, I tell her, goes up and down. Its roots are your parents and grandparents, and they carry you up to the sun. Eventually, the branches outnumber the roots, as funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Time passes, the earth rises; branches become roots. Roots become earth. The family expands and contracts, watered by tears and years, each moment a still life; a basket of beautiful and decaying fruit.

And then there are the branches we don’t see, the invisible branches that connect us to each other and to God. Now how do I explain this? The metaphor breaks down. I know an orphan who found love in Jesus. There are children raised by Allah, and any number of Gods. There are people raised by strangers or friends, or books. They have fallen off the tree, but something has seen fit to raise them up.

There are the friends and lovers that we find, that we choose, that become bonds as deep as blood. Then there are our words and ideas and deeds, which can connect us to people across thousands of miles or years.

I don’t tell her all this. It wouldn’t make sense to a child. It only makes sense to me now after nearly forty years. I am far enough up to look down, low enough to see ahead, and experienced enough to look across.

But she can understand enough. She understands that she may have children, and that they may someday brighten all of our days again. She understands her brother, that they are close now. That a family can go forward as well as back. I hope in time she can see sideways as well.

Her parents will die, but a new family will live. Far, far in the future, I tell her. When you’re as big as me, which seems impossible, the whole thing seems impossible. I think I’ve answered the question. Enough absurdity that she moves on.

But later she repeats it back to me, in her own way. That we’ll die but she’ll have babies and thambi will have babies and that’s OK. There’s a bit more to this story but she’ll understand in time. Right now she just needs to put on pants and get down the stairs.