“Why do we close our eyes when we die?”
“Well — we don’t, necessarily. Sometimes people die with their eyes open, and someone closes them, just with their hand, brushing it over the eyelids.”
“But why close them? Can the eyes still see?”
“No.” I hesitated. I wasn’t really sure what to say. The obvious answer seemed to be that it was a gesture of respect for the person who’d died. But it didn’t really seem true to me, so instead I said, “I guess it’s more for the living person, who needs to feel that the person who’s died is at peace.”
These kinds of questions pop up periodically, and often leave my mind whirling long after N has fallen asleep. Funnily, she sometimes sleeps with her eyes open just the tiniest sliver, and has done so since she was a baby. I used to love to watch her as she slept, and see how the irises took on a sort of glazed appearance, as if they were still working, but seeing something inside rather than out.
I’m sure the questions come, in part, because of our ongoing adventures with the Harry Potter series. Harry’s beloved godfather Sirius Black died in the fifth book, falling through the Veil with a “look of mingled fear and surprise,” as Bellatrix LeStrange’s triumphant screams rang in Harry’s ears. And now, part way through the sixth, The Half-Blood Prince, we are all waiting for the moment Albus Dumbledore dies, a spoiler that caused us all to gasp aloud when N’s friend uttered it several books back. Death is such a constant part of this series that it’s no surprise it comes up when the light goes out. J.K. Rowling herself has said, “My books are largely about death. … I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”
And yet — I remember a time a few years back, when N was three or four, and her grandma’s good friend died. For a year or so after, N would ask about what happened to him. One day as I retold the story for the umpteenth time, I finished with, “It was very sad, but….”
And she said, “No, Mom. It isn’t sad. It’s okay, because people always want to die right when they’re going to.”
It was one of those moments when you aren’t sure if a child has said something incredibly profound or if you, as an adult, have read more into it. In any case, it’s always stayed with me. It felt a bit like a gift.
When discussing these weighty subjects, it can be tricky to know what kids are ready for and what feels like too much. For all her apparent wisdom, N was too tender for Charlotte’s Web when we read it together some years ago. She seemed to be loving the story, but when it became obvious that Charlotte the spider was winding down, getting ready to leave “this lovely world, these precious days,” the story was too heartbreaking. We finished it, but she didn’t want to read it again — a sure sign, in those days of reading the same things over and over, that something was amiss. But Charlotte’s Web is a beautiful story. Eudora Welty wrote that it was about “friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.” That must be one of the most eloquent bits of praise I’ve ever come across.
E.B. White had a solid career at The New Yorker long before he began writing children’s literature. He was over 50 when Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. Like the Little House books I wrote about last time, Charlotte’s Web was illustrated by Garth Williams, who apparently used his own daughter as a model for Fern Arable, the determined eight-year-old who’s shocked that Wilbur the pig will be killed just because he’s the runt of the litter. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says.
I think I was in Grade 3 when I read Charlotte’s Web, and I remember being puzzled by the title, and also trying to figure out, in my child’s way, whose story this was. Was it Fern’s? Was it Wilbur’s? Was it Charlotte’s? In the end, of course, it’s about all of them, and the web of friendship.
As Charlotte tells Wilbur just before she dies, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”