My daughter pulls her purple backpack out of the car and slams the door – not hard – just enough to get the job done, but loudly. It’s four minutes before First Bell, and we fall into step with two or three other families streaming through the school gates onto the playground.
“Do you have your water bottle?” I ask her.
“Yeah. Mom, why do people hang themselves?”
Children and parents, nannies and babysitters, older sisters, younger brothers, toddlers and strollers and kids, and kids, and kids stream all around us.
I must have slowed down, because she tilts her head in that anxious, impatient way she has, to let me know that I’m embarrassing her.
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” I say, finally. “Where did that come from? Did someone hang themselves… in a story?”
“My friend’s book.”
“Oh. I see.” She waits expectantly, standing next to me now at the edge of the playground, where we are no longer in danger of obstructing someone’s path. Her eyes and face are wholly open to what I’ll say next.
Too open? Am I up to the task? You might think that, given my family history, I have a practiced answer for this question. I have nothing. I have to make it up on the spot.
Just like most people.
“Sometimes, when people are really, really, really sad … for a really, really, really long time … and they feel like they’ll never stop being sad … they might choose to hang themselves.” Or shoot themselves. Or take too many pills and hide in the underbrush next to a creek. “They might, but it’s a bad choice.”
When I begin, she is turned completely towards me, eager to hear, but at some point while I am speaking, she drops her backpack at my feet and runs over to hug her friend. I can see her now, spinning, her head tipped back, hair flying. “Come on!” she says now, but not to me. She jumps down from the spinning wheel, tagging her friend on the shoulder.
I don’t know quite when she leaves or how, how much she hears, how much she wants to know. She may simply want to know if hanging makes a person die. It’s the kind of thing she gets curious about – what makes a person die – so it may have been that. I don’t know.
“Come ON!” she says again, more of a command than a request this time. Then she playfully darts away, daring her friend. The chase begins. The bell rings. Her backpack is retrieved. She stops for one brief second, hugs me quickly, runs away again.
“Goodbye, sweetheart. I love you!” I call after her.
She and her friends run together to the fourth grade door, tagging each other every three paces or so, giggling and shouting the whole way.
I say to myself, as I return to my car, as I pull into traffic, as the songs on the radio change and change again, what I wanted to say to her but did not (and still I don’t know which answer was more right):
Why do people hang themselves? I have guesses, Honey – only those – because the truth is, I just don’t know.