I think about it at this time of year, because it’s when my daughter asked me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. She was barely four years old.
My Grandma Eve died on New Year’s Eve in 1981, and my daughter heard me talking about it with my husband. There was to be a funeral, and I had told her I would be leaving her and her baby brother at home with Daddy while I went to be with my family to say goodbye to my grandmother. I don’t remember telling her much more than that.
At bedtime that night, I read her some stories, kissed her goodnight as I always did, switched off the light and got as far as the doorway–when she said, “Mommy, what happens when you die?”
To say I was unprepared doesn’t begin to convey how I felt.
I don’t remember anyone explaining death to me when I was that little. No one I knew had died yet–if you don’t count goldfish. I do remember when my mother’s father died. I was in second grade, and knew that my mother was very sad that she would never see her father again. I guess I accepted whatever my parents told me about it. There was no talk of heaven or of being in a better place. He was gone, and all I could remember about him was that he liked pumpernickel bread and having a “glass tea.” He wore glasses and smiled a lot.When my mother came back from his funeral, she started wearing his gold wedding band on a necklace.
But I had to tell my daughter something that night. She looked to me for an answer that I didn’t really have. So I told her what I believed: that no one truly knows what happens. And I told her what I thought: that people may not be alive anymore, but they can still be part of our memories. We can tell stories about them over the years, and their stories will be almost like having them with us. It didn’t feel like a very good answer, but I was put on the spot right at bedtime when I thought I was done for the night. It was the best honest answer I could come up with after a blindside like that.
A week or so later, I ran across a lovely book by an artist named Cooper Edens. The book is called The Caretakers of Wonder. On the very first page, Edens writes: “This very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. Now, look out your window! For even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical.” The illustrations throughout show people doing all sorts of amazing tasks: making new stars and climbing a rope ladder to put them up in the sky; keeping the moon company, and “feeding him when he’s too thin and watching his diet when he’s too full.” Others are busily “weaving the meadows and telling the trees where to stand,” or “painting feathers on birds and designs on the wings of butterflies.”
|Illustration by Cooper Edens
Some people collect raindrops, while others mend old clouds, and stuff new ones. The characters wear bow ties and suspenders and top hats, or long skirts and flowery dresses, straw hats and striped socks. They look old-fashioned and fanciful and might not be out of place under the big tent at a circus long-ago.
At the end of the book, the reader is asked to “imagine what you most would like to do to help keep the world magical,” and gently points out that one day, we will all be invited to become one of the “Caretakers of Wonder.” Sounds lovely in a way, doesn’t it?
I could never read this book to my kids without blinking back some tears. But I’m so glad I found it.
The illustrations look like they came from a dream vision.
Maybe they did.
Or maybe Cooper Edens somehow knew that the Caretakers of Wonder really do perform all these things from dawn to nighttime every day, and that the ones we have loved and lost are out there making sure the sun rises and the night sky is folded up and put away safely time after time. That’s what I would like to believe, anyway.
And that is what I hope my daughter understood when I read to her about all the friends who keep the stars burning brightly in the sky, working where we cannot see them, keeping the world magical.
|Illustration from Caretakers of Wonder by Cooper Edens