I am walking
with my nephew through a shaded lane in a beach town. It's stifling hot
and I've just bought him a can of orange soda from a drink machine outside
the local convenience store. (Like many soda machines, this one featured
a full-size portrait of a NASCAR hero in his tight ad-adorned jumpsuit.
Someone had scrawled a pirate eye patch on his face and eliminated a few
teeth with black crayon. The effect was very nautical.)
My nephew has
been slurping on the can for what seems an eternity. I can't believe he's
making the drink last this long, but then I consider that at 5 years old,
a can is like a keg. I ask him if it's good, mostly because I don't remember
being thanked for it and I'm doing my best to instill good social skills.
Someday I'll be the bad uncle, the one who lets him get away with shit
when mom and dad are being hard-asses, but not yet.
than working," he says. I am scarcely surprised; he's often piping
up with strangely adult phrases like this.
know," I say (wanting to reinforce the message that work need not
be comprised of drudgery), "I kind of like what I do."
We stroll along
a little while. Slurp. "I don't want to die," my nephew says.
This one momentarily
catches me off balance. Like many kids, he's trying to come to terms with
the reality of death.
can understand that," I begin lamely. I'd rather not parrot all the
usual platitudes on how death gives life meaning and all that. I'm really
the wrong person for him to be talking to, because unlike many adults
I know, I still fear and hate death. I've somehow failed to make peace
with it as a grown-up.
you'll die doing what you do," my nephew tells me.
For a moment,
I'm at a loss for breath, much less words. He knows I'm a firefighter/EMT
and, I admit, it's always been part of that Uncle Adam mystique. My nephew
visited me at the rescue squad once when they were in town, and I sat
him up in the heavy rescue truck and put an SCBA mask on his face. It
stank of smoke. My sister reported that he was in a haze of rapture, like
someone who's had a religious experience, the rest of the day. But I had
never really considered that he would worry about my safety.
about the right thing to say. Should I promise him that I won't die in
a fire? If I did get snuffed, I figure a broken promise would be only
one of his sorrows, and he might just be asking me for reassurance that
I'll always be here. Maybe he's too young for anything more subtle than
that, and an equivocal statement will only make him worry more. On the
other hand, maybe he's trying work this stuff out and the best thing I
can do is help him with the task. Deep breath.
"I love being
on the rescue squad," I say, "and I'm always very, very careful
when I am." I sense this is being received well. "It's important
to me to stay safe," I say again, hammering on that message. "You
know how you hold someone's hand when you cross the road?" He nods.
"You do that to be safe, because the road can be dangerous. But if
you never went across a road because it was dangerous, you'd never see
anything interesting. The rescue squad is like that. I do it because I
love it, and because sometimes it can be a little more dangerous I have
to be even more careful."
We walk on a bit
under the low canopy of evergreens. Another noisy sip of orange soda.
I'm not sure if I lost him on that last metaphor. "Does that all
make sense?" I ask.
He nods. "Yes."
Just like that, the moment's gone. Whether I said the right thing or not,
it can't be redone. He's moved on to other things, like an old comb he's
found in the sand by the side of the road. Maybe those words will come
back to him sometime, and I can only hope that they offer more solace