I walked in to the play room today to find my four year old lying down on the floor underneath a mountain of dress up clothes – my two year old was busy building the mountain. This is not particularly unusual, except that this time, Ruby’s face was completely covered and Audrey was busily adding a Tinkerbell dress and a set of wings to the pile already on top of Ruby’s face.
‘Don’t put too many things on her mouth,’ I said as I passed by. Then Audrey looked up at me and said, in all seriousness, ‘But she’s broken her leg and so I have to cover up her mouth so that she can’t breathe any more.’ Hmmm, I hope that’s not the recommended treatment for a broken leg.
So I said, ‘But if she can’t breathe she might die.’
‘Die!’ Audrey cackled gleefully, just like a wicked witch in a fairytale.
My children are obsessed with death and hospitalisation at the moment. We have read Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline over and over, because Madeline goes to hospital to have her appendix taken out. They are no longer satisfied with playing ‘dead princesses’, which is what they call the game where they pretend to be a dead princess a la Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the handsome prince to kiss them, at which point they jump up and shout, ‘I’m alive!’ Because death is only temporary, or so they think.
I remember that when I was young, one of my favourite games was playing hospitals with my dolls. I had filled an exercise book with all kinds of invented diseases, complete with hand drawn illustrations and it was my job to diagnose and treat the unfortunate dolls who ended up in my hospital. Most made a full recovery, thanks to a favourite gift from a grandparent who had been in hospital: a genuine suture kit.
It’s obviously an obsession I haven’t quite let go of. This might sound macabre, but both What is Left Over, After and my new book Bodies deal with aspects of death, amongst other things. My mum is always asking me to write something less depressing. But I’d like to think that both books, while dealing with serious topics, also have enough hope in them to be at least a little uplifting by the end. Just like my make-believe hospital. A serious game, but also a seriously good diversion.
I wonder if my girls’ imaginary games of fixing broken legs through suffocation are also attempts to understand something that is so different to Barbies and fairies and cubbyhouses, the usual ingredients of their day. Which is why, when an opportunity presented itself today, I took it.
Ruby found a bird’s egg in the backyard. As she was lovingly wrapping it up in a blanket to keep it warm, she dropped the egg and it shattered. She was devastated. Until I suggested that we go outside and dig a grave to bury the baby bird. So, all together, we dug, we buried, and then we marked the grave with flowers and a stone. We said some prayers. Then Audrey said, ‘Is the bird asleep in heaven?’ I said yes.
‘How long will it sleep for?’ she asked.
‘Forever,’ I replied.
Ruby chimed in with, ‘That’s longer away than my birthday, isn’t it Mum?’ And that is how children transform something unthinkable into something they can imagine.
That’s why I love imagination and why I think I’m so lucky to be a writer – it means I get to spend a part of every day not just watching my children’s blossoming imaginations but also living inside my own.