the tandem off the trail at one of our well-established top-of-the-ride snack-stops, my daughter noticed a young horned lizard darting through the duff and detritus nearby.
"Look, daddy! A lizard!" she shouted.
"Catch it!" I proposed. And, after a brief chase, she did, cupping her hands gently over the tiny beast and bringing it back for me to admire. I was pleased to see how confidently she pursued and caught it, and also with how tenderly she handled it while it was in her grasp.
She's a woods-kid, always has been. She took her first steps there, long ago, and her first stumbles, too. She has no qualms about being out in it far from home, riding its trails, climbing its rocks, naming its flowers, sleeping beneath its stars, and returning home badged in the blood it has let from her hands and knees, richly adorned with its dust and mud.
As she set the lizard back down in a tuft of gramma grass she asked, "Can we have a snack now?" I always have a small bag of Panda black licorice chews in my pack, and as I opened the bag to pour a few pieces into her hand I said, "Wipe your hands off on your shirt first."
"Why?" she asked, a little surprised. We always eat our mid-ride snack with dirty bike-hands and gloves.
"Well, reptiles like lizards and snakes can sometimes carry infectious diseases. Remember, last time we handled the snakes at the Arboretum? We sanitized our hands right after. Same reason."
"Can you die from them?" she asked, a worried tone, which I've been hearing with increasing regularity lately, now evident in her voice.
"No, not really. I guess they can make you pretty sick if you're not careful," I told her. "But you don't need to worry; we just need to be smart and do what we can to minimize our risk. So, in this case, we'll take off our gloves and wipe our hands really good on our shirts before we eat our snack. No big deal."
She accepted my explanation, wiped her hands on her shirt, and I poured a few chews from the bag into her hand. As we ate, we talked.
I think she's been on the periphery of too much tragedy for her nine years, and that it is this fact that is at the root of much of her burgeoning worry and concern about illness and death. I was at least ten before I ever knew anyone who'd died, and when it happened it threw me for a pretty good loop. Her case is quite different. She's borne witness to a lot more tragedy than I had at her tender age. In the past few years we've grieved together over the (unrelated but equally tragic deaths) of both a well-known mother (of hantavirus) and father (of drowning) among our community of friends and coworkers, as well as the unexpected death of a student at my school, and of two of our friends' teenaged sons (one due to texting-while-driving and the other, most recently, from an accidental mixture of drugs and alcohol). And, just before the holiday season last year, we endured the more timely but nevertheless tearful passing of her awesome 97-year-old great-grandma, Lala.
That's a lot of sadness for anyone to witness in a short period of time. When you're nine, I think it's probably overwhelming.
"I don't want you to grow up to be a worrier, like me," I told her. "Bad stuff happens, like sickness and death, and you've seen a lot of that. I'm sorry you've seen so much. Even still, I want you to be bold and courageous, and not frightened or filled with worry as you grow up. I want you to be wise, too... and also to be able to be cautious, when caution is necessary. It's good to know what the risks are. But just because there are risks, that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't take the risk. Remember what C.S. Lewis said: usually the best things we do in life scare us to death.
"Just don't be a worrier. It's a handicap that you put on yourself; I know, I've always been that way. But, I think if we can learn to be smart and careful when we need to be, then we won't need to be fearful and worry so often. Ya know?"
She nodded and was quiet for a little while.
Then she changed the subject, "Can I have the tandem when I grow up, so that I can take my kids on rides like this?" she asked.