"When are you going to die, Mommy?" my 4-year-old keeps asking me.
The first few (dozen? hundred?) times, I thought it was just a random question. "Not until you're an old lady and your kids are all grown up," I'd tell her.
Then I discovered that I was out of the loop with what was happening at preschool.
First, her teacher's mom died. "She was sick for a long, long time," Ms. Wendy told the kids. "And she was very old."
Well, to a 4-year-old who, if you ask her how old I am, will often guess, "14," I'm pretty old at 42. And I've been sick as long as she can remember. Since before she can remember.
And then the mom of a student from another class died. We didn't know the child or the parents, but Ellie does. It's a small preschool.
"Moms die," Ellie says. "They're sick for a long, long time, and then they die."
So what do you do when you have a mystery illness and a young child?
I keep telling Ellie that I'm not going to die until she's at least as old as I am now, but while I hope it's true and I have no reason to think I'm going to die before I hit old age (is 84 still considered old age?), there's no guarantee.
Heck, I could get hit by a Mack truck tomorrow, and my death might have nothing to do with my mystery illness. Or my husband could, and I could outlive my very healthy (as far as we know) husband by 30 or more years. (Ok, I'm Jewish, and I just have to say this: G-d forbid. Any of it. G-d forbid.)
We've talked a little bit about cycles of life, that every living creature (including moms, bugs and puppies) are born, they live and eventually they die. Some live longer than others. People usually live longer than puppies, and puppies usually live longer than bugs. (Actually, I guess I don't know that last part is true ... are there really ancient bugs alive out there? How long do cockroaches live?)
"So if you're not going to die soon, does that mean you're going to get better?" Ellie asks.
I know I'm biased about my kid being brilliant, but doesn't she have a knack for getting to the key questions? (If journalism weren't a dying industry, I'd say she was destined to follow in my footsteps and be a reporter when she grows up.)
"I'm trying to get better," I tell her. "I'm doing my best."
"But when?" she asks.
"I don't know," I say.
Which, come to think of it, is the same answers I give the adults in my life who ask when I'm going to get better, when my doctors will figure out what's wrong with me and come up with a way to treat it.
I know all kids must ask about death. It's a natural part of life; pets die, elderly relatives die, even the flowers in our garden die. So I'm probably just taking it way too much to heart when Ellie asks when I'm going to die. I'd probably just laugh it off, shrug it off, if I didn't have this chronic illness that leaves me on the sidelines of her life.
So how do you answer questions like, "So when are you going to die, Mom?"
For now, I'm keeping to my standby: "Not until you're an old lady and your kids are all grown up."
4 months ago