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Lions Roar : September 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 29 MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD SON’S preschool teacher, Toni, was dying of lung cancer. I’d known that she was fighting it a year earlier, when I first enrolled Skye in the Peaceable Kingdom, the wonderful little Montessori school that Toni ran in the bottom floor of her hillside home. But month after month, she showed up in her classroom every weekday morning—as she had for over thirty years—sitting at the end of a low table on a child-size chair, her spine ruler- straight and her grey hair cropped short, greeting each child with a warm smile and a firm instruction to “put on a smock and choose some work to do.” Just after Christmas, though, after a particularly rough bout of chemotherapy, she went upstairs and went to bed. She didn’t come back down. “Toni is resting,” her assistant, Sarah, explained to the children. But after she had been gone a few weeks, Skye came to me one evening in the kitchen as I was stir-frying tofu and broccoli. “Toni is never going to get better. She’s never going to come back to school.” “Did Sarah tell you that?” I asked. “No,” he told me. “I just figured it out for myself.” “We don’t know for sure that that’s true,” I told him, trying to choose my words carefully. “But she is very sick. Does that make you sad?” He nodded. “It does.” SKYE HAD COME tothePeaceableKingdom as a three-year-old refugee from a larger, more chaotic preschool, where he had spent his days sitting alone on a chair in the corner, singing to himself and watching the other children squeal and play. He was a precocious but eccentric child who could converse with adults about relativity, but couldn’t figure out how to play blocks with another little boy. Toni took him under her wing—as she did all the children—teaching him math and reading while training him step by step in the fundamental rules of social engagement: “Skye, go ask Baxter, ‘Can you show me where to hang my coat?’ Now say, ‘Thank you, Baxter!’” A native Frenchwoman and strict disciple of the Montessori method, Toni had faith in the power of social conventions, and her rules quickly penetrated our own home, too. Within a couple of weeks, Skye was watching me disapprovingly as I sneaked a piece of pasta with my fingers before placing our dinner plates on the table. “At the Peaceable Kingdom Montessori School,” he reproved, “we aren’t allowed to start eating until everyone is sit- ting down and a grownup says, ‘Bon appetit.’” Skye’s first questions about death had started long before Toni got sick, as he encountered dead bugs, dead flowers, the half- eaten mouse our cat deposited on our doorstep, a crow we found in the garden with maggots crawling in its eye sockets. One day a hummingbird flew into our sunroom window and broke its neck. “Does everything die?” he asked as we buried it under a lavender bush. “Will I die, too? Will you?” I hadn’t prepared any good answers in advance. As a California Buddhist mom, I didn’t have a culturally agreed-upon story to tell him, like the one I had learned as a child in Catholic Will I Die, Too? Will You? Love and heartbreak meet when a young child asks about death. A N N E C U S H M A N wonders what a Buddhist mother answers. ILLUSTRATIONBYJESSICAVONHANDORF