I wrote this a year ago, but thought of it this weekend when I saw how much my youngest has changed over the last months. It is an essay I feel speaks to how stress is not necessarily an adult thing. And how kids can be complicated creatures.
Death By Fire
I swallow hard as the therapist hands me the drawing. There’s a girl, in a rainbow colored dress, lying with her eyes closed on a series of jagged red peaks. It could mean anything. It’s colorful, bright. Maybe even cheerful.
But the therapist shakes her head. “When I asked Elodie about it, she explained that this girl was burned alive. Killed by the heat of the fire.” She points to the red peaks. “That’s the fire. The girl has her eyes closed because she’s dead. Not because she’s sleeping.”
I can imagine my five-year old daughter huddled over the paper, chewing on her dark blond hair in concentration. I can imagine her gripping the markers with her soft little hand and pushing down hard enough on the paper that in places it’s ripped through.
What I can’t imagine is what goes through her head.
I hand the drawing back to the therapist and she continues, “Have you noticed any changes in Elodie’s attitude or behavior lately? Has she been especially angry or scared?”
I wipe my palms on my skirt. They’re wet and stick briefly to the fabric.
Does Elodie seem angry? Yes. Lately, always.
“It’s just that in every session one thing has struck me about Elodie,” the therapist continues. “The amount of aggression she displays. It comes out when she’s playing or drawing or, especially, when she’s discussing her nightmares.”
“Aggression?” My lips feel numb.
The therapist’s eyes catch mine and, thank God, I see empathy, not judgment there. She explains. About how Elodie’s playtime scenarios involve things like gutting a dinosaur with a huge, serrated knife. How her dreams involve multi-headed monsters Elodie must fight or face certain death. How terrified Elodie is of death by fire.
I twist my rings on my fingers and look down, remembering when Elodie was still a baby. When she would gnaw on my shoulder and neck with her gums or when she’d only fall asleep in the little kangaroo carrier, the warm flesh of her cheek almost fusing with the soft skin on my chest. There was such a synergy, such a shared neediness between the two of us, that I sometimes forgot we were two separate beings. We seemed to be an extension of each other. I knew when she was happy or hungry or sad or scared.
But now? Now she’s this five-year-old girl who’s become an enigma. I watch her with such love, it wrenches my heart. I watch her and wonder how she became so agonizingly angry with the world.
The therapist and I talk for a good hour about Elodie and her aggression. About Elodie and her fight against growing up and growing more independent. “I’ll help her deal with the monsters,” says the therapist. “You help her move from baby to big girl.”
I shake her hand and leave to pick up Elodie and her sister from school. On the walk home, my eldest runs ahead to catch up with friends and Elodie curls her fingers around mine. I tell her the therapist said it was time to become a big girl.
“But I don’t want to. I don’t want to grow up!”
She holds it together until I unlock our apartment door. That’s when Elodie lets out a long, fierce scream, kicks her feet and pounds her fists on the wall. For the first time, I take a moment to really look. And when I do, I see past the fury: I see terror in her eyes.
And I feel it. I know it.
It’s the fear of being consumed. Of a cherished time, a cherished past, being eaten by flames, being reduced to ashes. A fear of losing myself, who I was — who I am — in the smoke. And of losing others to the hungry fire of life. I think it may be part of what is going on in Elodie’s head at only five years of age.
“It’s okay, Elodie,” I say, wrapping my arms around her, kissing her forehead.
But I’m afraid.
Of growing up. Of growing old. Of growing further away from her and the others I love.
I, too, am very afraid of death by fire.