The day before Easter, I decided to expose my daughters to the crucifixion of Jesus. Lisa, my wife, Torrey, our older daughter, and Sara, our 4 year-old and I decided to watch “Jesus of Nazareth” a 1977 made for TV movie being replayed.
I wanted to expose the kids to religious history and concepts, but struggled with how best to do it. Watching the story of Jesus on film would provide them insight into Christianity, and was an easy story for children to understand, I thought. Lisa and I debated whether watching it would be too much for Sara, given the inevitable portrayal of the crucifixion.
The crucifixion scene was long, detailed, and graphic. Sara’s sustained silence, despite her keen interest in the film, worried us. It occurred to us that Sara and Torrey’s lack of religious context made the idea of watching it again untenable. Had it been a mistake?
Lisa and I loved our daughters, and their childhoods. They were so adorable, and so smart and funny. We cared so deeply about them, about loving them, providing for them, making sure they were protected and received the things they needed to be confident, happy and loving women in a world full of challenges. We were absorbed in their lives, grateful for the opportunity to be their parents.
Four weeks passed. I had forgotten watching the film by then — it had left my mind weeks ago. I would find out that Sara’s memory of the film had endured.
Sara and I were in the front room. There were no distractions. The television, often playing the “Wizard of Oz” tape or a children’s television show on Saturday mornings at the house, had been turned off. It was quiet.
Sara approached me shyly, as though perhaps afraid, and directed the question to me. Although at four years old Sara was talking quite well, she was sufficiently young that word selection and pronunciation were still in an adorable phase.
“When I die, can I do it with you and Mommy in the back yard?”
She had enunciated this unexpected question perfectly. I had heard her. Even so, I said, “What did you ask?”
She repeated the question.
“You know, when I die? Well, can I do it with you and Mommy when we do it in the back yard?”
OK, she really had asked about dying. That was troublesome and unnerving to me. She looked worried and sad. Her voice was plaintive and quavering, as though tears were not far away. It was hard for her to ask this. She worried, I thought, that I might tell her that she had to die without us. My mind was racing for an explanation. Back yard? What did the back yard have to do with it? Dying all together? What the hell?
I kneeled down and put an arm around her, drawing her close, trying to sooth her. She was wearing blue denim bib overalls and shoes that flashed when she walked. I looked into her adorable face, into her intense, worried eyes, obscured by long wisps of platinum-blond bangs. Her monster cheeks were flushed red. She gripped Mokey, a favorite stuffed animal in her right hand.
“Sara” I said, “what do you mean about the back yard?”
I had determined that the back yard was an easier topic to focus on — I would address her concern about dying alone subsequently.
“You know, on those big building things when you die? Like in the Jesus movie?”
“What building things, baby? What do you mean?”
“Like in the movie, Daddy, those big wood things. Can we do it together when we have to?”
It suddenly came over me what she was asking. In the next few seconds I realized what a bad idea it had been to expose her to that film. Our little girl had assumed that, when our time came, we all were to die by crucifixion. She would be nailed up on a cross to die in our back yard. She was worried that she would have to do this alone. If she were going to be crucified, she wanted to her parents beside her. This was simultaneously the most horrific scene and the most wonderful request that I could imagine.
“Oh, baby, no, no,” I said, my eyes welling up with emotion. “You are not going to die that way, no one will ever do that to you, sweet baby. Come here.” I put both arms around her and lifted her up, hugging her.
“That was just a film, baby. No one is going to do that to you. And mommy and daddy will always, always be with you, OK?”
“OK, Daddy. That’s OK.” She gripped Mokey as she put her head on my shoulder.