Alrik recently turned five years old. Maybe this engendered a sense of impending mortality, because he's been talking daily about how he doesn't want to die, and doesn't want me to die, and doesn't want family members or pets to die, or really anybody.
I think there are two types of people in this world: those who fear death constantly, and those who kind of push it out of their minds to think about occasionally but not obsess. I am one of the former group. Apparently so is my son, despite my efforts not to pass along the useless anxiety.
I didn't realize it would start so young.
Alrik, being young, though, came up with a great idea: I'm a scientist, or so he tells me, and I can make a potion to keep us from dying. I'm not sure if that makes me more a witch than a scientist, but I'll take either unearned title.
For awhile, this made me more anxious whenever he brought up the subject. "I don't want to die. I don't want you to die. You need to make a potion to keep us from dying," he would tell me, and I would feel the weight of a child's trust that I, as a mother, can solve death. When, really, it terrifies me, and I know my own helplessness in the face of future nothingness.
He started checking in with me as his birthday approached. "Have you made the potion yet?" he'd ask me, in the same breath as asking how many sleeps were left until his big day.
For awhile, I tried to put him off, murmuring some vague assurances that I was working on it and then changing the subject.
Eventually, and belatedly, it hit me: This is a child. Approach this as a child would. This is, as I read it, at the heart of playful parenting: that children communicate and understand their world through play. Not that play is always goofy and silly and physical but that it's the way children approach everything. That play is serious business. That play can make sense even of things like death.
The next time Alrik asked me about our purported potion, instead of shutting him down, I asked for more details. What sort of potion should it be? What should it do? What should it taste like?
Alrik filled me in. He'd already given this some thought, you see. Obviously! It should be a Change Age Potion that sets us back to a younger age. We should take it right before we're about to die, and it will make us younger again. And, silly Mama, it doesn't need to have a flavor: It will be a splash potion that we just throw on the ground and it splashes up on us, a la Minecraft. Well, naturally!
Alrik asked me the next day what progress I had made. I entered his world and told him I'd been brainstorming. To change age, we would need two things: Something important to them at the age they want to turn to, and clocks. "Clocks?" he asked me. Yes, I said. One clock for each year we're turning back.
He thought this was a good idea.
But how would we mix clocks into a potion? I told him we would have to grind them into powder. He didn't want to give up the watch he'd gotten from a kids' meal at Subway — no, of course, not that one — so I suggested we could head to the thrift shop to round up the amount we'd need.
I said we didn't need the actual important thing to each person, either, just something representative. Like, if your favorite thing is My Little Pony, you could burn a My Little Pony sticker and sprinkle the ashes into the potion. He thought this sounded dangerous but fun.
Alrik then bounced around to all our family members, taking potion orders. Did they want in, and what age did they want to turn? Alrik decided to be four, until he turned five. Sam chose age 30. Mikko declined to participate, but Alrik and I have conspired to make him a potion behind his back, just in case he changes his mind.
Since entering into the imaginative process, I'm reassured, and I think Alrik is as well. I'm reminded that our adult way of looking at things is not always needed or helpful when our kids approach us with the Big Questions. That sometimes they just want us to enter into their own way of managing big emotions and thoughts. I haven't had to don a lab coat or scour thrift stores for old timepieces — I just needed to play along with him, in a serious way.
P.S. Let me know if you want in on a Change Age potion. I've got the formula right here.