I have mentioned before on my blog about how my children are obsessed with games involving death and serious injury – pretend death that is, of the kind one always wakes from a la Sleeping Beauty, and imaginary injuries of the sort that can be always fixed with a scrap of fabric and a Fisher Price medical kit.
The injuries aren’t always inflicted on themselves – their dolls and soft toys often fall victim to terrible fates. As do make-believe birds, courtesy of Bob Graham’s wonderful picture book, How to Heal a Broken Wing.
This is a beautiful book about a small boy who notices something that everyone else misses – a bird on the ground with a limp wing dragging by its side. The boy and his mum take the bird home and keep it in a box with a blanket until it is healed. This story almost came to life in our home just the other day.
The girls were busily colouring in and their baby brother was doing his best to tip their textas on the floor and rip their paper when I saw a bird on our alfresco area just near the back door.
‘Come and look!’ I called because the baby especially loves to see birds right up close.
Everyone came running. But as we got a little closer, I couldn’t stop the words, ‘Oh no,’ from escaping. Because the bird was lying on its stomach on the ground, legs splayed out on each side, head slumped forward. Nothing was moving. But it was too late. Everyone had seen it. And the reactions were:
- From the baby: Screeching delight and shouting ‘bir-bir’ at the top of his voice.
- From the five year old: Hysterical sobbing and shrieks of ‘Mummy, do something!’
- From the three year old: After careful analysis, the calm enquiry, ‘Has it died?’
What struck me was the difference in attitudes between the two girls. It was clear that, even though they play games that involve the ‘death’ of a doll or themselves, this was the first time that my oldest daughter had come close to seeing what death might really be. It was also clear that my middle daughter still thought death was something transient, mildly interesting and not something which yet touched her emotions.
This was made even more apparent by her next words, which were, ‘Mummy, you need to get a box and a blanket.’ Because just like in How to Heal a Broken Wing, if we were able to put the bird in the box with the blanket, she thought everything would be made right.
By this time I could see that the bird was still breathing so I did get a box and a blanket. But the baby had worked himself up into such a state of excitement at his proximity to a bird that he began to pound the glass door with both hands, making so much noise that he startled the bird into consciousness and it picked itself up and flew away.
I didn’t see whether or not it cleared the fence. I told my oldest daughter that it had. And then my middle daughter said, ‘You fixed it Mummy,’ because that is what mummies do, in life and in books, and I wondered if there were any children’s books out there where the mummies can’t fix everything and what is the right age to begin to read those stories. When do you begin to trade innocence for knowledge?