Sunday, September 12, 2010

What If--And the Mystery of Family

Somehow over lunch, the topic of fire came up, as in "What would happen if there were a fire?"  We hadn't had a detailed conversation with the kids about the various "what if's," so it was good to talk about what we would do, how we would get out, and how we would keep ourselves safe.  We talked first about the idea of a forest fire and what it would mean to evacuate, taking only the most important things we couldn't replace--Mommy's computer with all our pictures, Teddy and Froggy, Merlot and Jasmine, etc.--and then driving to safety.  With the huge wildfire in Boulder, I've been thinking about this concept a lot recently.  Then we talked about what we would do if there were a fire in our house.  

The kids asked question after question about the possible variations on a scenario, so occasionally Josh or I would bring it back to the main point: "If there's a fire in the house, you need to get out of the house as quickly as possible."  Bottom line: keep yourself safe.  At some point, Ben mentioned grabbing our important things before we got out, and so we quickly clarified that if there's a fire in the house, we just get ourselves out as fast as we can without stopping for anything.  In a house fire, we emphasized, we just get ourselves and, hopefully, Merlot out.  I think I said something like, "But you guys don't need to worry about Merlot.  Your job is to get out of the house right away, and Daddy or I will figure out if we can safely get Merlot."

The tenor of the conversation changed here.  Most concerned, Ben asked, "But what would happen if the fire got Merlot?"

We couldn't avoid the question at this point, so treading carefully, we said, "Well, Merlot would probably die."

And then I watched Ben attempt to control the emotion that flooded his face as he tried bravely to form the words, "Why would she die?"  But he couldn't get past the first word before his lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears and the sadness spilled over onto his cheeks, finishing the sentence in heaving breaths.  In seconds, he was completely overcome with sorrow at the thought of losing his beloved puppy, and Josh and I found ourselves crying, too--though for us, the tears came from deepest empathy for our tender son imagining such a loss.  

Josh immediately grabbed him and held him close, and we both comforted him with assurances that this would probably never happen.  We assured him that once we knew all four of us could get out safely, our next priority would be to get Merlot, too.  And Jasmine.

"But Jasmine's not an outdoor cat," he reminded us, wiping his eyes.

And so the conversation moved into other hypotheticals.  After we finished our lunch, we walked outside all together and pointed out their windows and the best way to get out of each one if they couldn't get down the stairs and out the front door.  And we made plans to go get ladders this afternoon for each of their rooms in case they ever did need to escape out a window.

The conversation was good and necessary on so many levels.  We made our escape plans, determined a meeting place outside the house, and gave the kids clear instruction on how to proceed in case of a fire.  And we navigated new territory that brought gravity to the idea of this emergency that, I think, underscored why we have some of the rules we have and the severity of the consequences when something goes wrong.  But it also touched on bigger issues of ethics and morality and philosophy: the weight of a human life versus an animal life and how to prioritize those lives when resources, such as time, are limited.  Mostly, though, it gave us a glimpse of how important this four-legged friend has grown to our family and especially to Ben, who grieved deeply the mere thought of her loss.

I'll admit, though, I was taken aback by how quickly my own emotion rose to meet Ben's, as immediately and instinctually as a fight or flight response, as though it were my own grief.  In a profound way, Benjamin is an extension of me and Josh, our love combined in one body.  He is bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.  And so we saw our son's emotion, and it became ours--not in some unhealthy, codependent way, but in Love: in the identification and recognition of our own painful humanity passed down to him.  It's hard to articulate, but today at the lunch table, the layer of reality lurking just below the surface revealed itself through these unanticipated tears.  We are family, and that small truth means so much more than coexisting under the same roof.      

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