17 July 2014

A Game of Pooh Sticks on the Bridge of Sorrows

"Daddy, will the Sun ever burn out?"

Her voice quavering, my daughter questioned the very life of stars. The Sun is not the certainty to her that it is to me. It was there by creek side, under a luminous smear of galactic dust, she spoke to me of Death. 

I inhaled crisp air lashed with the tang of woodsmoke from the fire at our feet. A little creek, crossed by a tiny footbridge, bisected the yard in front of our cabin. It burbled and whispered as I craned my head back to contemplate the stars overhead in the clear South Dakota sky. Her questions were unexpected. The truth seized hold of my tongue before I could shush it.

"Yes, it will, sweet pea."

Her eyes as those of a wounded doe, she asked "When?"

"A long time from now, so far away we won't know about it when it does," I said.
She paused. Her face a sphinx before the flicker of the flames. 

"Could it happen tomorrow?"
"No, dear."
"But when will it happen?"
"Billions of years from now."

That stopped her cold. I swallowed the tightness in my throat, a metallic tinge of regret burning my gullet. The truth as I knew it was maybe not the best of revelations for a thoughtful kid who wants to see around corners. Just like her Da. I could tell. It was there in the shining eyes beyond the firelight. We held our breath, teetering on the fulcrum of a hard question, she wanting to know the truth and me wrestling with shielding her from it.

The dam broke. Questions spilled from her lips. Tell me about stars, she said. How long does it take for them to burn out? What happens if I get sick and die? she asked. What happens if you get sick? Is that what happened to my brother and sister? I don't want that to happen to us, she said. Will it? Will it, Daddy?

My mind reeled. The sediment of memory was stirred up, and thick. I did my best to describe and explain, without going to deep into details. Assurances were made, platitudes delivered, at best it was a redacted version of wisdom and history. There was no hiding from the direct questions. She is too smart for me to pull the wool over her emotional eyes for too long, so there was no trying.

The sutures on my heart throbbed and ached when tears welled up in her eyes. How to explain these things without breaking someone's heart? Compassion and regret were duking it out in my head.

But she asked. I wanted her to know. We drifted off into a conversation about the stars, again, their colors and what they mean. She impressed me with what she already seems to know about those things. I asked her if she knew of an easy way to remember the colors and the sequence. She did not. From some memory vault last accessed long ago, I dredged up the mnemonic I had learned as a kid.

"O-B-A-F-G-K-M, sweet pea. 'Oh be a fine girl kiss me." I laughed. She blushed, I think, hiding her grin behind her hand. 
"That's funny, daddy."
"I know, but you remember it, right?"

She asked me for the third time if I was certain the Sun wasn't going to burn out when we would know about it. I responded again that I was certain.

"Are you sure?" she asked, her arching upward in that 'I-do-not-quite-believe-you-yet' sort of way.
"Yes, I'm sure."

We lapsed into silence. A slight breeze stirred the trees. For some ticks of the clock, I watched the stars wheeling over the ridge line to the north. It was beautiful in the night. My eyelids drifted downward, the murmurs of the creek and the dying of the light exerting the gravity of sleepiness. She surprised me with another question.

"Daddy, do you remember the bridge? The one back in Maryland close to the apartment?"
I snapped my eyes open. "Yes, I do."
"I liked the bridge. Remember when we used to play pooh-sticks from it?"

The tightness in my throat returned. Boy, did I ever remember. "Yes," I squeezed out.

"That was a fun game. I liked watching the sticks in the water. We could play it here!" she said while pointing to the footbridge. The shine in her eyes was pure joy. Much better than the existential sadness I had glimpsed earlier. I chuckled.

"I reckon we could, sweet pea, but it is a bit dark for it."
"I know," she sighed, "but we could when it is light." 

With that, she announced that she wanted to go inside the cabin, because she was tired and it was getting cool. She fetched water and I doused the embers of the fire. Watching them fade away, I felt untethered from the earth, but comfortable with floating. My daughter hugged me, briefly, in that skittish animal way that kids have sometimes. The realness of the affection convinced me that sometimes, the best way to handle the infinite is to play games on the bridge of sorrows.


  1. There's just something painfully wonderful in the innocence of children...and in your words, Irish.

    1. The things she thinks about! Thank you :)


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...