There’s a little game my son Tucker used to play with us, starting when he was about two years old and continuing up until he was four. We called it “Death Scenes.”
It is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: he took the stage (i.e. he stood in the middle of the living room) and acted out his death in dramatic fashion. Usually this involved a grab to the throat as if choking, much gasping and wide-eyed gurgling, followed by a collapse to the floor, and a slight death rattle as a mortal coil was shuffled off. Sometimes it was instead some mysterious stomach ailment. Almost always, this dramatic death was followed by the sudden resurrection and rise of a gruesome, adorable zombie, who immediately began moans of “Bwaaaaaains! Bwaaaains!” and started attempting to consume the delectable grey matter of his unsuspecting audience. Unlike traditional zombies, these walking dead were typically only repelled via the judicious use of tickles.
(You can blame most of this on my wife’s background in theater, though I will gladly take the blame/credit for the zombie bit.)
At some point, the game just sort of… disappeared.
I’m not sure why, really, but it was, like so many things in parenting, something we did regularly with our kid that was way up there on the list of Things We Play Because They Are The Funnest Things Ever. And yet somehow, almost unnoticed, it drifted away from us all.
“Death Scenes” is certainly not alone in that distinction. Sadly, I can’t just jingle a set of keys in my kid’s face any more to make him smile or distract him (although now that I think of it, it might be worth a try sometimes…). His favorite foods, cartoons, and books have constantly shifted, like loose sand. People still ask about our complicated, babysitter-anxiety-inducing bedtime routine, that involved watching a round of Jeopardy!. It was such a huge part of nightly tradition, but the truth is it was replaced by other traditions eventually, and we’re left with fond memories of quality time spent together as a family, whether being goofballs or learning trivia in the form of a question.
I bring up “Death Scenes” because I had something of a shock the other day. We were watching something — a movie or TV show, I think, but which one I cannot recall — and one of the characters did their own over-the-top dramatic feigning of their own death. I laughed and looked at Tucker and said something to effect of “Haha! Look, he did a ‘Death Scene,’ just like you used to do!”
“A what?” Tucker asked, confused.
“A ‘Death Scene!’ Remember, when you would pretend you were dying…?” Nothing. “…and then you’d turn into a zombie and try to eat my brains? Remember? A ‘tickle zombie’?”
He gave me the blank to end all blank looks.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Dada.”
Now, there are a lot of things we do as parents when our children are very young, and we are very aware that we are really the only ones who will remember: Who visited him in the hospital when he was born; his precious first steps; his first attempt at solid food; how one time Dada was holding the freshly fed baby up in the air above his head, making him laugh, and he threw up, right into Dada’s mouth. My son will never remember those things, and I wouldn’t expect him to.
But somehow it doesn’t occur to us that many of those incredibly special moments, activities, trips, games, and routines that we have with our growing toddlers — finally mobile and communicative enough to be able to express their personalities, likes, and dislikes in a consistent way — were not destined to be shared memories at all. They were memories primarily for us as parents to cherish.
Over the last few days I’ve asked him more about things I had assumed he would remember, but doesn’t: The favorite park he would always request visiting, back in Pennsylvania, because it had a giant rope spider web. Visiting the farmer’s market where “The Pickle Lady” gave him (and later his little brother) a free pickle on a stick, just for being so cute. The first time he got brave enough to feed the goats by hand at the zoo. That time we went on a farm tour, we caught a baby chick, and he named it “Lightning Dog.”
He remembers none of it.
All the things we did together. All the adventures we had exploring. All the vital importance we both placed on following our established routines. All that time I thought I was helping make special memories for him, we were actually making memories for me to keep, and curate in my own internal memory museum. Perhaps to share with him later? I suppose. Someday he might love hearing about the things we did when he was younger of which he has no memory. But I imagine that I’d better get used to that blank “I have no idea what you’re talking about” look, when I start verbally wrapping myself in the warm blanket of fond, comforting memories that mean next to nothing to him.
This thought makes me a little sad, to be honest, but… it also gives me a little bit of a sense of relief. We put so much pressure on ourselves as parents to be “making memories with our kids” all the time, like everything we do together needs to be a Special Event. It’s actually sort of nice to know that, when it came to memory making, our lives were absolutely full enough for any kid, and that we (I!) didn’t fail just because I didn’t manage to check something off on a list of Things You Need to Do With Your Toddler.
As my son has grown older and longer, so has his memory. Honestly, sometimes his recall is scary, it’s so good. I know that he will retain far more about life at age five — who his friends were, places we went, things we did, stuff we saw, and what was important to him — than he does about life at age two, or three, or even four. What hasn’t changed is that all he really wants is plenty of time with his Dada and Mama.
That’s the thing that he really got out of all of that memory-making.
It’s our persistent presence that is the memory that will last for him, not the details, large or small.
Those are for us to keep.