“Surely we are safer behind
some sort of a wall, protected
from the grief of belonging.
But all along your heart knew
it was a lie, the polite fiction
that you tell a child.
Nothing bad can happen.
You’re safe with me.
—Rev. Lynn Ungar, in “Distance”
In the early days of COVID-19, my older child started to fear venomous snakes. While walking through our neighborhood, he asked if rattlesnakes would bite him. When I assured him that there are no rattlesnakes in Michigan, he asked about vipers. Then cobras. Then boa constrictors. Then anacondas. We had read a book about snakes a few days before; he remembered all their names. I offered reassurance after reassurance: They don’t live in Michigan. They don’t live in Kalamazoo. They don’t live in our neighborhood. They can’t bite you. I won’t let them. I will keep you safe.
It was as though in his four-year-old wisdom, he recognized the uncertainty of everything right now by asking questions that had reassuring answers—even if they’re not the real questions of the moment. When he asked about snakes, I could tell him, Nothing bad can happen. You’re safe with me.
I was relieved when he asked about snakes, because I can’t offer nearly as much reassurance about “the big bad germ”—the name we’ve given COVID-19. The big bad germ is why everything is closed and cancelled, why we socialize through the computer screen, why his parents are acting differently.
The herpetologists among you might know my mistake: there’s a rattlesnake that lives near me—the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. (I Googled this later.) While it sticks to wetlands and avoids sidewalks, my reassurances were not as true as I thought they were. When my child started talking about snakes again, I apologized for my earlier mistake. I told him that there are snakes who live nearby, but I would still do everything I can to keep him safe. It wasn’t as reassuring, but it was more honest.
In these days, when “I don’t know” is the only true answer to many of my child’s questions—When will the big bad germ be over? When can I see my Nana? Will I get to keep going to kindergarten?—I’m grateful for a question with an answer, even if it’s not the answer I want it to be.
Sources of courage and compassion, sources of reason and radiance, in these days of so much uncertainty, may we choose honesty over comfort, love over complacency, and truth over convenience. May it be so. May we make it so. Amen.