When my brother and I were five and six, we had a kinship with two rubber puppets. Bert and Ernie’s likenesses were firmly affixed to our left hands for as much as I can recall, their striped shirts flowing down to our bony, prepubescent elbows. My brother’s puppet/role model/nerdy twin, Bert, had a uni-brow crafted into the model of its head, and my sassy Ernie had a sprout of hair that frizzed merrily.
These Sesame Street dummies slept with us, ate our Rice Krispies with us, and accompanied us to science camp. We certainly set the wheels in motion for a lonely, friendless childhood, void of pool parties and Chuck E. Cheese invites.
My mother was chronically ill with in and out of hospital care, so the hand-puppet pals were the brainchild of my father. He felt we could have built-in best friends and possible comfort creatures during this funky period. He knew our hands were in good hands since he was a supporter of the research and teachings of the Children’s Television Workshop, the genius collective behind Sesame Street.
Good lessons were taught to us when we tuned in. Letters and numbers, and shapes and colors. Lying is bad. Don’t spread germs. And…death happens.
My mom died early one Sunday morning. I woke and heard my brother and father talking about her in the other room. My dad finally came in and I wanted to know where she was.
“She’s in Heaven. I’ll let you just think about that for a while.”
“But why? Why?”
And then he was gone.
So what the hell did that mean? Who was she visiting? When would she be coming back in the front door? And who should I be counting on to make my favorite pancakes that morning?
I never had real answers, so I did what kids in that position do: I developed a special relationship with magical thinking. Children who have trouble separating fact from chance events sometimes use a process called “magical thinking” to explain two unrelated events. From then on I lived in a castle in the sky because my mom was now a fairy, or an angel, or floating on a cloud somewhere.
I developed a rich fantasy life. My invisible boyfriend was Officer Frank Poncherello from the TV show Chips. I would answer the phone and tell all who called that they were speaking to the Lady of the House. I would close my eyes, spin around and around, and tell myself when I opened my eyes my mother would be sitting on the couch in front of me.
But she was never there. Ever. Just because.
Another turning point happened during pancakes and PBS one cold morning while watching my favorite, Sesame Street. Big Bird gives his friends pictures he drew of them. Mr. Hooper had been a friend of Big Bird and often made him birdseed milk shakes, but we learn of his death when Big Bird finds out that Mr. Hooper is no longer at Hooper’s Store. Of course Big Bird does not understand and announces that he will just wait for him to come back.
The Sesame Street adults tell him that when people die they don’t come back. But Big Bird angrily demands to know why things have to be this way. No one has a ready answer at first. Then:
Big Bird: “Well, I don’t understand! You know, everything was just fine! I mean, why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason!”
Gordon: “Big Bird, it has to be this way. Because.”
Big Bird: “Just because?”
Gordon: “Just because.”
The scene fades to black. I don’t remember what skit came next, but I looked down at my soggy cereal and wondered how could they feed such crap to Big Bird? Is this really the best grownups have to offer? It wasn’t fair. Big Bird deserved more than that, just as I did. I later read that the scene explaining Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird was done in one take because the actors were too emotionally exhausted to perform another take. If they only knew their efforts weren’t good enough.
When Will Lee, the man who played the character of Mr. Hooper died, it left the producers of Sesame Street with questions about how to acknowledge the death of one of the series’ most visible actors. One way out was to avoid the issue of death entirely. After much discussion and research, the producers decided to have the character of Mr. Hooper pass away as well, and use the episode to teach its young viewers about death as a natural part of life. To tell them that it is okay to grieve and feel sad when a loved one passes away “Just Because” was not enough, it left kiddies hanging, and wondering and confused.
Explaining death to children is similar to talking to kids about sex, except that many parents find death a more difficult topic. Often times euphemisms like passed away replace the words dead and died. We say Grandpa is sleeping, or we lost Grandma.
Kids can handle the truth. They can handle death. It’s adults who need happy stories to ease their discomfort. As a confused little girl in the suburbs, it would have benefited me greatly to have a shred of truth to cling to, rather than clinging to the hope that I would sing Marie Osmond’s part on “Paper Roses” and I would soon hear my mother’s version of Donny’s vocals soon joining in.
When my daughter Sofia was three, we were watching the Sesame Street episode compilations “40 Years of Sunny Days”. Halfway into the video, the scene opens on Big Bird walking over to his friends to hand out the sketches he made for them. I froze. This was the scene that confused everything for me – “Just Because” meant nothing and explained nothing.
I watched my child with great interest during the segment. I waited for tears since she is a sensitive child and would feel bad for her yellow bird friend. But instead, after Gordon’s famous final words, she looked at me and said in broken kid speak, “Mom, tell Gordon that Mr. Pooper died because he was old. Old people get sick and die. Tell Gordon, OK? Because Big Bird needs to know that Mr. Pooper is at the funeral home because he is dead.”
I held her and laughed and cried, and felt an overwhelming sense of pride. I have been criticized for my odd parenting choices, especially for raising her in a funeral home, but if I leave this world anytime soon, this is one kid that will not wait for her mother’s Fergie vocals to kick in during “I Got a Feeling.” She will sing right on through. And loudly, with a knowing smile on her precious face.