Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Difficult conversations

Tom is a talkative four year old. I may have mentioned this on occasion; for us it is, after all, a source of enormous comfort and pride given that it wasn’t looking to be a very likely outcome at one time. So Tom’s incessant chatter is the backdrop for our every waking hour; endless repetitive questions, detailed explanations of his needs and expressive dissent are on steady rotation only interrupted, and then reluctantly, by the insertion of food or a toothbrush into his mouth.

You may have picked up a ‘tone’ towards the end of that paragraph. It’s taken a while and a number of posts to get round to it but the admission is long overdue. Sometimes it would be nice if Tom ruminated and reflected for a moment. Silently. Just stopped for a breath occasionally – that would be enough. How can there be so many words in one so young?

Of course, this is a gross exaggeration. There are moments in the car perhaps when he’s gazing slack-jawed out of the window or licking the back seat to get the last of the sugar that fell from a doughnut three weeks ago. And what do we do?

‘Are you OK Tom? What are you doing?’… and it starts all over again.

I could regale you with some of the more hilarious exchanges but they would need so much back story and context that the humour would be lost. You had to be there.

A couple of less funny topics have sprung up though and I would appreciate a bit of advice if any reader wouldn’t mind. I’ve tried bringing the subject up in a couple of human-to-human conversations recently and it has jarred a little to say the least.

So we were innocently looking at wedding photos a week or two back and happened on a photo of my grandfather. I explained who he was and that he’d died. Death isn’t an entirely new concept to him – plants have gone all pale and brown on occasion and he has had similar conversations with a grandparent or two about their ancestors – but his curiosity about the matter had not been sated. And so the interrogation began.

I tried to stick, gently, to straight facts. Largely speaking, and perfectly typically for a four year old apparently, Tom was mostly interested in the practicalities of what dead people ‘do’ and where they are now. At one point I muddied the water with a rather abstract explanation about the benefit of memories and ‘pictures in my head’ of my grandparents. He, of course, wanted to see the pictures.

The subject has been revived on a number of occasions since, the most traumatic of which was a conversation which led to Tom tearfully saying ‘I don’t want to die.’ I wish I could remember how we got to that point; it certainly wasn’t preceded by me saying ‘you’re going to die’ or even ‘everybody dies’ – he made a leap of logic from somewhere far less obvious. Smart kid.

The tears and trauma, for Tom at least, lasted a few seconds and we got onto the safer ground of just how long it might take him to finish his toast. Did I mention that Tom is a slow eater? I think it might be connected to the talking thing.

So death has quietly slid off the conversational agenda over the last few days… to be replaced by meningitis.

Nik and Tom were invited to a photo-op event by the Meningitis Research Foundation. The event, which took place yesterday, involved children who had survived the disease throwing beanbags at a human sized purple bacterium (‘the guy in the meningitis suit’).

To prepare him for this, we showed Tom a recent newsletter from the Foundation, featuring said human-sized bacterium. And the questions began. And they don’t show any sign of ending any time soon. So far we have been called on to give the following answers:
  • meningitis isn’t really that big and doesn’t wear running shoes
  • meningitis is about as big as little Cat Z in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
  • he had meningitis when he was little
  • it made him very poorly, involved a ride in an ambulance and a stay in hospital
  • it made him poorly by breaking tiny parts of him inside (I really regret starting this one – how do you explain cellular damage to a four year old? What was I thinking?)
  • doctors can see meningitis with special machines – that’s how they could see it when normal people can’t
  • we don’t know how it got into him; it was possibly his ears and probably wasn’t through his bottom
  • doctors made him better with medicine called penicillin (he was keen to know what kind – Tom is something of a medicine connoisseur)
  • it killed the meningitis
  • its not in him any more – its gone. Its just gone (trying to head off explanations about cellular ingestion)
  • he got better

We haven’t got as far as joining this up with his ears and deafness but I don’t doubt that its just over the horizon. He has taken it all in his stride thus far and I hope to God he continues the same way.

It’s just part of his story and brings no painful recollections or repetitive nightmares. That’s just us. He asks – so we tell him as best we can.

So what do you think?


Jamie said...

As I always say to the parents of my patients "I might be the expert in medicine but you're the expert in 'Tom'"
These are hard questions with tough answers which you seem to be coping pretty well with.
I think the important thing is to be simple and honest and try to avoid complex analogies in the 4-5y olds!
No real advice as such, as I say you know Tom inside out and he loves and trusts you (& nic) more than anyone; so I'm pretty sure when more hard questions come along you'll instinctively know how YOUR son will handle them being answered.
He is the delightfully well adjusted and endlessly fun and funny little lad that he his 'cos you've been getting things pretty close to spot on so far!

Anonymous said...

I just loved that first paragraph by the way. I am just stunned at his inquisitiveness and think that you and Nik have done a tremendous job in responding to these tough issues. They would be tricky conversations for parents and children of any age, but for a 4 year old, I just can't even imagine. Hell, I can't even imagine having any conversation with Ethan :-) You guys just keep following your incredibly smart and articulate guts and you'll be more than fine.

And I'm dying to see a picture of the little guy!