Last week, Naomi Rivka and I read this Christina Rossetti poem from First Language Lessons:
Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.
Over in the Well-Trained Mind forums, I noticed that one of the mamas commented about this poem, “I wish I didn't say-spin and die.” I assume because DIE is a very blunt word. But honestly, I am happy that the poem says DIE and not anything else.
First because in this case, it’s a happy ending – the caterpillar emerges again as a butterfly. But second, because that’s really what happens in nature, in the real world.
Death is all around us, and frankly, a caterpillar is a better way to learn about it than a zeidy.
There ARE no good euphemisms for death. Pretending there are is just silly, in my blunt (and even possibly wrong) opinion.
Last week, I overheard a teacher referring to somebody or something (I really forget what!) as having “passed away.” And she kept saying it. Passed away… passed away. Maybe somebody in the parsha? (maybe it was the man who cursed Hashem in Emor?)
It started driving me crazy.
Worse yet, as all of us decided during the shiva for my father, is the word “passed” by itself. “He passed.” Shudder. Death as the ultimate test of – something?
- We lost him? (um, run and look in the parking lot)
- He left us? (should I take it personally?)
- He lost his battle with… (I don’t like the disease-as-battle thing because it suggests that those who succumb just weren’t fighting hard enough)
- He went to be with… (purely goyish)
- He’s in a better place? (again, goyish; Jews prefer to reflect on the destination more quietly, for some reason)
No, in most cases, the best word is (pick one) dead, died, death.
Dismayingly, it seems to be religious people who go for the euphemisms, as if admitting that death exists denies our essential spiritual being. That’s silly, too. Bodies die; neshamas are eternal. It’s not a Jewish thing to avoid saying “death” – and I don’t spit three times when I say it, either. Those are just excuses for avoiding the blunt truth.
In the garden last week, while I dug a new bed, Gavriel Zev and Naomi Rivka were “adopting” worms as I turned them over (I have never touched worms, but this year, I managed to pass them to the children with my gloves on – yay!). Gavriel Zev had a teeny tiny baby worm on his little spade and he was parading around with it announcing, “this is going to be my worm for the rest of the day!”
Well, after a few minutes, his devotion waned and he left that teeny tiny worm on the spade in the bright sunshine for about twenty minutes. When he came back, he carefully walked over to me with the spade, where I could see that the worm was totally dead. I poked it; I checked. Dead, and I told Gavriel Zev so.
His question, of course: “what does DEAD mean?” I said the worm looked like it was asleep, because it wasn’t moving, but it wasn’t like sleep because the worm was never going to wake up and do worm things, ever again.
Luckily, this is Teflon Boy – a weaker child might have broken down at my little wormy guilt-trip. I think GZ just tossed the worm aside and moved on.
It’s good for kids to see death – in worms, in smushed squirrels on streets, in plants if they are pulled up by their roots. To know even that they can cause death, albeit a small wormy one, if they’re not careful.
(my line for ant-stompers is usually “Hashem makes you bigger than the ants so you can protect them!”)
These small children are too young to remember much about their zeidy. And God willing, it will only be after hundreds of these little deaths (ahem) that they experience a “real” death. But when it happens, they will know. They will have the context that all things living can and DO die.
The only possible drawback I can think of is that hearing the kids say it could upset some adults. And I figure adults can deal with it.
As with everything else, I believe very strongly in calling things by their proper name, even if the proper name is embarrassing.
Even if the proper names for things come up in songs like the one Gavriel Zev created and now sings at the top of his lungs about eighteen times a day, which is loosely based on the “Who Knows One” song on Rabbi Chaim’s Pesach CD (don’t read on if you’re squeamish):
- Who knows pishy? I know pishy! Pishy is the something that comes from your penis!
- Who knows penis? I know penis! Penis is the something that you (hmm… I forget)
- Who knows kucky? I know kucky! Kucky is the something that comes from your bummy!
- Who knows bummy? I know bummy! (I call it a “tushie,” so “bummy” is automatically considered a “ruder” word!) Bummy is the part where kucky comes out of…
And so on. If allowed to continue, he produces verses ad infinitum like “Who knows toilet?” “Who knows potty?” and, my personal favourite, “Who knows spit?” (grouped with the others because he is only allowed to say most of those words in the bathroom, and the bathroom is also the only place where spitting is allowed).
I guess the point is, when your kid knows the right words for things, it can make us big people feel squeamish… but it is also, as he is discovering with his song, tremendously empowering and perhaps more frighteningly honest than we big people always care to admit.