My Katie is a sensitive soul.
It’s difficult to know how much of her tender heart was there at birth and how much was created by the crises she’s lived through — her father’s cancer diagnosis when she was 2, his treatment and illness, his death when she was 4.
The mix of nature vs. nurture doesn’t matter so much as the reality. I’m constantly learning how much to shelter her from unnecessary sadness — and even how she defines sadness.
This means that I sometimes have to curtail Cooper’s conversations and table them for a time when Katie’s away. There’s only so much she can handle related to the Civil War (too many young men dying), cannibalism (constant worry about where they might lurk and how she can avoid them), Anne Frank(there’s no way to explain the evil of the Holocaust).
She has empathy for almost every movie character, making almost every film a guaranteed emotional experience.
She’s aware of current events because we talk about them — not because of media. She doesn’t watch television news or listen to the top of the hour on NPR.
Of course, the realities of life can’t — and shouldn’t — be avoided altogether.
In the waning days of vacation last week, Cooper spied a treasure on the seafloor: a living starfish.
He ran to shore to grab a Frisbee, ran back into the waves and gently scooped up the starfish, along with some sand and salt water.
“I want to keep him as a souvenir,” Cooper said.
“That means he would have to die,” I said gently.
“No, Cooper!” Katie said, not so gently. “God created him for a purpose. He needs to live!”
She pointed out that one leg was shorter than the other four. Where it had been cut or torn, new growth was spreading. She pleaded with her big brother to return the starfish to its natural home, to give that shorter leg more time to grow.
During these negotiations, a little girl hovered. She asked about the starfish and our intentions. I told her that Cooper was wading back out with the creature.
“Then I’ll take it!” she said. “I want to take it home!”
And with that, she was off, running in Cooper’s path. Moments after the starfish was settled back in sand and water, the little girl scooped it up and sprinted ashore to show her family.
Katie, meanwhile, ran to me and sobbed.
“That curly-haired girl from Iowa took the starfish,” she cried. “It was saved, and now it will die.”
I held my 6-year-old’s sandy, damp body close to mine and let her sob.
And then the curly-haired girl, directed by her family, returned the starfish to the sea again.
Katie was relieved but still shaken.
“I don’t like knowing that someone is dying,” she whispered.
She was quiet for a moment.
And then she asked what she’s never asked before.
“Did anyone see Daddy die?”
I told her yes, that I was there, along with Grandma and a nurse. That I was holding his hand. That he wasn’t hurting the moment he died.
She cried some more and then shared a little of what she remembered from that day more than two years ago. She told me that she loves everything about life except death.
And then she wiggled free of my embrace and headed for the water. She danced in the waves, and her laughter drowned the sound of the surf.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.