I happened to read a while back, in some book called Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful (a follow-up to Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy), that the imaginary play of four-year-old girls often features more death and violence than that of boys. It's a good thing I came across that bit of info, as Emi's playing right now -- with dolls by herself, with other friends -- is all about dying or going to jail, or in some cases dying in jail.
"Snow White," she'll say to her Snow White doll in a stern voice, "you're not listening! You have to go to jail! You're gonna be dead!" Or, playing with her Barbies, one doll will say to another, "Oh no! She's dead!"
If I hadn't read it in a book that all this dying talk was okay, I might feel a little defensive about Emi's death-wish. As it is, I just have to deal with the guilt of being the probable cause of her fixation with prison.
Sometime last week, when I was up late trying to write but really just answering e-mail, I noticed a ladybug hanging out on one of our lamps. Before I went to bed, I put the ladybug in a glass, rubber-banded some Saran Wrap over the top of it, poked some holes for air circulation, and put it on the coffee table for Emi to find the next morning, thinking she might be thrilled to see a ladybug up close.
She was: she promptly named the bug Spotty, rummaged in the refrigerator for some lettuce leaves to put in Spotty's glass, and decided to take Spotty to school for "science sharing." I'm pretty sure that's something Emi made up, but I'm all for science, and I'm all for sharing, and if the two can go together, then heck, who am I to nitpick?
So we brought Spotty in to Emi's preschool and added her to the science station, where the kids have been examining bird and fish bones with magnifying glasses, and where they've also been learning about bees. At first Emi didn't want everyone else to "bother" Spotty, but we talked about how Spotty came from nature and how nature belongs to everybody, and after a half-hour debate Emi finally conceded that Spotty couldn't be owned by anyone, not even her, so she couldn't really stop all her classmates from looking at Spotty. One of Emi's teachers broke out some kind of bug encyclopedia and they found a picture of a ladybug that looked just like Spotty (a nine-spotted ladybug beetle, Coccinella novemnotata). Emi was ecstatic.
After school that day, Emi said, "Mommy, everybody loves Spotty so much! I hope Spotty can come to school with us forever!"
Without even thinking, I said, "Well, ladybugs live a pretty short life." Emi stopped.
"Does that mean Spotty's going to die?"
I silently groaned for having been the one to bring up the subject of death.
"Well, yes," I said. "But maybe not today, maybe in a few days."
Emi was silent.
"You know," I told her, "people live a long, long time, but ladybugs don't. Some bugs only live a few days, some can live for a few months. I don't know how long Spotty's been alive, and I don't know when she'll die. We'll just have to enjoy the time we have with her. Okay?"
Emi said, "O-tay."
Spotty actually made it through the entire school week, despite the preschoolers tapping on her glass and Emi's helpful infusions of leaves and salad.
On Friday, Emi's teacher suggested we take Spotty home for the weekend. "Spotty needs light to feel happy, and the classroom's going to be dark all weekend," she told Emi. "And besides, maybe it's time for Spotty to go back to nature. Maybe you can set her free."
"Maybe," said Emi, but she looked doubtful. Then she ran off to play with her friend Hannah.
"Look," she called out as she and Hannah laid on the middle of the floor, "we're dead."
Her teacher said, "Oh, that makes me sad. That kind of game hurts my feelings."
Emi and Hannah scrambled to their feet and ran to the wooden jungle gym.
"Sorry!" they said as they raced by.
I gathered up all our things, including Spotty and a squirmy Nate, who more than anything wanted to try and drink from the glass that was Spotty's current home.
"I love having Spotty at our house," Emi said when we walked in the door.
I put Spotty in a sunny place on the windowsill and went on with the business of taking care of life with two kids. In other words, I forgot about her.
On Sunday, I came out in the morning and noticed Spotty lying on her back, one wing sticking out unnaturally. She wasn't moving. She was dead.
"Emi," I said, when Emi came out to the living room. "I have to tell you something. Remember how we talked about how ladybugs don't live as long as people?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Well," I hesitated. "Spotty isn't alive anymore."
"Is Spotty dead?" Emi asked. I nodded my head. "I want to see her," she said.
I brought the glass over and Emi peered inside. "Oh!" she exclaimed sadly. "Her wing is hurting!"
"Not anymore, sweetie," I said. "Spotty's body is here, her wings and her face and her legs and everything, but her spirit, the thing that made her Spotty, is gone."
"But I still see her," Emi said. "I want to feel her."
We took the Saran Wrap cover off the glass and I put Spotty on the plastic wrap. Emi gently touched the spotted red shell. "She feels hard," she said. "She's still in there?"
"No," I told her. "She left her body behind."
"She went back to nature?" Emi asked. I said, "Yeah, I guess she did."
Later we went to the park to have a picnic for dinner and play with friends. Emi wanted to bring Spotty with us so we could officially return her to nature, so we did. She showed her friends the dead ladybug and told them that Spotty wasn't alive anymore.
She said, "We have to tell Miss Robin tomorrow about Spotty being dead, but I not say dead a-cause that hurts Miss Robin's feelings. I'll tell her Spotty went back to nature."
We found a nice spot near a tree that had been ripped in half by our recent brush with Hurricaine Isabel and we put Spotty in the dirt. "We should say goodbye to Spotty," I said to Emi. "Is there anything you want to say to her?"
Emi thought for a minute. "Goodbye Spotty," she said. "Fank you for coming to my 4-year-old class and for hanging out with me and Natey. I hope you had fun going back to nature. Goodbye, I love you." And then she ran off to play with her friends.