Kina has never been a particular fan of Mister Rogers, which is a slight blow for her father, who tries very hard to convey Fred Vibes in his day-to-day parenting. I am comforted somewhat, of course, by her love for Daniel Tiger, a subsidiary of Big Fred who delivers the same energy in a more approachable short and furry package. When we have put on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the past, she’s demanded that we skip past all the human stuff until we get to the tattered puppets in a constitutional monarchy part—and even then, the clock is ticking; I’m not sure we’ve ever seen more than five minutes of an episode of Mister Rogers. So it comes as a bit of a mystery to me that Kina has become obsessed with figuring out what happened to Mister Rogers and, tangentially, what it means to have died.
She asked Laurea first, about our cats Gertie and Licorice. She never met Licorice, Laurea’s childhood cat, but we’ve been telling lots of stories about her lately (often delivered as bribes between bites of dinner). Kina can recall Gertie, who died nearly two years ago, only slightly; we sometimes look at pictures of the two of them together on my phone—Kina rolling on her back and holding her feet as an infant, while Gertie cleans herself on the couch beside her. Laurea bought two cat ornaments this year, each resembling one of our dear departed feline friends, and it must have lit something up in Kina’s brain.
“Where are Gertie and Licorice?” she asked Laurea the other day.
Taken aback, Laurea told her that they’d gone away.
“Where did they go?” Kina asked.
Under pressure to deliver a succinct answer—and I cannot say I’d do any better than this—Laurea told her that they were “in another world”. This draws on our own coping mechanisms for dealing with the death of our cats, when we would tell each other that they had “gone to space”. Thinking of the arc of our cats’ lives ending with a journey into interstellar space in full spacesuit regalia always makes us smile, and so we’ve grown accustomed to retelling things that way.
Kina’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Mister Rogers came this morning, over breakfast. There was no episode to prompt this, because—as I have made very clear—Kina has never expressed the slightest interest in watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She just asked it, straight out: “Where did Mister Rogers go?” Laurea looked me straight in the eye. We cannot just say that Mister Rogers went to space.
I don’t know where Mister Rogers is, but I do know he died in 2003, and I am honestly ill-equipped to talk to my kid about mortality—even as death has come in such massive waves here in the last ten months. I have never felt comfortable talking about death, because it’s so hard for me to imagine what it means not to exist, knowing full well that someday I will not exist, and that my not existing will very likely go on for an inconceivably long time. When I worked with the NYT Parenting crew, I remember people saying that kids start thinking about death at four, but it’s only been two weeks now! I figured I had a little more time to write the script for this! I will need that script, because I don’t really want to talk about mortality off the cuff, for fear that I’ll spiral into existential agony myself. This, again, is why our cats “went to space” in the first place.
I do not know where he’s gone, I told Kina, but we are lucky to still have all these videos of him. He was alive when I was a kid, but I never met him, either.
“But where is he?” asked Kina.
“He died,” I said, “and I don’t know where he went. But we can watch him, if you’d like.”
After she finished breakfast, she came to sit with me on the couch and asked to watch an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We picked one that features a visit with Eric Carle in his studio, a tour through a factory where they make fortune cookies, and a trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe—in which an anthropomorphic fortune cookie tours the neighborhood and speaks Spanish. Kina got a little annoyed about halfway through Eric Carle (whose studio is amazing, btw), but we made it through to the end, when Mister Rogers sings her favorite song from Daniel Tiger, about how good a feeling it is to know you’re alive. In that song, he sings:
It's such a good feeling
A very good feeling
The feeling you know
That I'll be back when the day is new
And I'll have more ideas for you
And you'll have things you'll want to talk about
I will, too
I don’t know where Mister Rogers has gone, but I know what I’ll tell Kina the next time she wants to know what happens after you’re here: I’m not going anywhere soon. I love her very much. I’ll be back when the day is new, and I’m glad we can talk about all the things we want together. It is a good feeling to be here with her, and to share in all the mysteries she gets to experience for the first time—both the mundane ones and the troubling ones. Maybe it will help me understand them better myself, or to be a little more comfortable saying that I just don’t know.
Either way, I suppose it does mean we have to claw back that stuff about the cats going to space. Onward, travelers—you are loved.