For her birthday several weeks ago, she received a “Souper Action Figure Spoon” from one of my colleagues. She reported that her children loved to eat with it and, sure enough, so did my child. We affectionately named him Spoonman, partly in honor of the Soundgarden song, but also partly because he is a man with a spoon for a head. In the past few weeks, my child has usually asked at breakfast or dinner if Spoonman was clean so that she could use him to eat.
Yesterday, Spoonman went missing. He could not be found at breakfast, and there was no time to search for him. By dinner time, we had forgotten about him. (We had spaghetti, which is more of a fork meal, at least for a four-year-old.) Cleaning up and washing the dishes, I dumped uneaten noodles down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. A terrible sound of grinding and cracking filled the room, and I quickly turned off the disposal and water to see what had gotten caught. I reached in and pulled out a single purple arm.
“Uh oh,” I said.
Looking tenderly at Curly Fries, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
She hopped down from her chair, came rushing into the kitchen, and saw the single arm lying on the kitchen counter. For just a sliver of a second I saw a quiet look of recognition slip over her face. And then in an instant she exploded into weeping, her fingers flying up to her face, her body bent over with the force of her wails. “No no no!” she sobbed, tears pouring from her eyes, her face scrunched into a grimace. “He was brand new! He was just brand new!”
Her mother came over, knelt beside her, held her close. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Fix him, Daddy!” she beseeched me. “Please, just fix him! Put him back together!”
I dug another few pieces out of the disposal. A split torso, a severed black foot, the head of a spoon. “I can’t fix him,” I said softly.
At the gruesome sight of these pieces spread out on the counter, she fell to the floor. “Brand new!” she kept crying. “He was brand new!”
As a hospital chaplain, this was a familiar scene. I’ve seen many a family frantically rushing into the emergency department, following up a vague and ominous call from the hospital. Standing in the doorway, they see me, then look past me and catch just a single glimpse of the loved one’s lifeless form. They collapse into tears, wailing and pleading and weeping as I try to provide them support and care. Granted, the stakes in my kitchen last night were undeniably much lower than those hospital scenes of heartbreak and loss. But the reaction was identical.
It was such a familiar emotional display to me, in fact, that I started to cry, too. Of course, like all parents do when their child has a toy break, we began to promise that we’d get another one. But that statement was as efficacious to her as if I’d suggested to a shocked and grieving widow that she could find a new husband. She only cried harder.
I’ve seen my child cry about a lot of things. I’ve seen her cry over broken and lost toys before. But this scene was viscerally painful for me. I’ve walked with a lot of bereaved families in some of the most tragic circumstances that they had ever faced. I’ve seen a lot of people break down at the inexorably terrible news that their lives have been forever changed. I’ve heard the heartrending howls of lovers and children and parents suddenly pushed into the deep end of loss. Every one of those families’ losses has affected me. I carry their grief with tenderness and care and I count myself as blessed to help them hold the love and loss as the one who found himself in a position of showing them a small piece of love and care.
Last night I got just the tiniest glimpse of what it would look like if it were my own child. It was terrifying. I know it was just a spoon and it was just our kitchen, but for a moment it felt to me much bigger and scarier and awful. I don’t mean to suggest that my child experienced a similar loss as those families grieving loved ones. I do, however, mean to suggest that she had a similar emotional reaction. On a much smaller scale, my child experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of something she loved, and her emotional response mirrored the typical patterns of human loss that I’ve witnessed so many times. In that moment, I was telegraphed forward to some tragic possible future, when my own child might be one of those families in the hospital, responding to the loss of a friend, a lover, or perhaps even me.
I know, this is some heavy shit to get into over a spoon. But I do think this is the kind of heartbreak we open ourselves up to as parents. Or, for that matter, as people who love other people. We worry and we hurt and we fear for those we love. We get these flashes sometimes of how much we love someone through the flashing realization that if something happened to them it would devastate us. We feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and the stronger our love, the more overwhelming the sharing of their suffering.
I believe, as a chaplain and a caregiver and person who wants to maximize the output of love in the universe, that this empathy to suffering makes us better at loving other people. As I stood over her, trying to reassure her to no avail that we could easily buy another Spoonman, I let the crazy association with a grieving family take over. Fighting back my own tears, I knelt down beside her, the crushed pieces of her beloved spoon action figure in my hand. “Do you want to say goodbye?” I said, my other arm around her, holding her tight.
“He was brand new,” she whimpered.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I wish I could fix him for you. I can see how sad you feel.”
I kissed her and let her cry until she said, “Goodbye, Spoonman.”
Of course, a replacement Spoonman is already on its way. (And thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, his miraculous resurrection will be faster than the three-day standard.) What loving parent wouldn’t instantly fix his child’s suffering? If the disposal hadn’t mangled and broken the plastic into pieces, I’d have glued him back together for an even quicker fix. I’m already looking forward to her reaction when she gets Spoonman 2 in the mail. One day, however, I know I won’t be able to fix it for her. My fierce love for her will fight that day tooth and nail. But when it comes, I want to be there for her to hold her suffering with her, to kiss her and wish with her that the world could be a little different. And when the day comes that I can’t be there for her, when she suffers losing me, then I want her to have learned that grief is the privilege that accompanies love. I’m so grateful that I am the person entrusted to love and care for her, no matter how much it may one day hurt.