Neil Humphreys – Discussing the Dreaded ‘D’ Word

THE Beatles are to blame. There were four. And then there were two. My daughter is obsessed with the monochrome moptops and she is mastering basic arithmetic. It’s a fatal combination.

And I know what’s coming.

“Daddy… Daddy … Who sang Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” she asks daily, revealing a quite spectacular, anal-retentive obsession with pop culture minutiae inherited from her geeky father.

“That one was John Lennon,” I reply, rather proud of my chip off the old block. “Lucy in the Sky was written about a painting that John’s son, Julian, brought home from school; just like the paintings that you bring home.”

I’m veering quite deliberately off tangent, a desperate attempt to distract and muddy the waters. Her puzzled, but inquisitive, expression reveals my failure. I sigh and wait for the inevitable follow-up question.

“Where’s John now, Daddy? There were four Beatles weren’t there, Daddy? Now there are two. That means two are missing. They are dead, aren’t they Daddy?”

Death, I am quickly discovering, dominates the thoughts of a four-year-old. She is grasping the concept of mortality, the circle of life followed by the abrupt punctuation mark of death. Fairies and princesses in her storybooks hint at a comforting immortality, but the sudden death of her aunt’s beloved dog confirmed the remorseless reality. Pets, people and loved ones are not going to live forever.

This revelation is making for some riveting meal times. I’ve got no intention of plunging us all into an abyss of morbidity. On the contrary, my little girl’s curious and inquisitive nature is making for hilarious conversation.

We were dancing around the living room to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album recently, when the “d” word popped up once more.

“Daddy, Daddy, I am the Walrus is sung by John, right Daddy,” she asked rhetorically, smiling and waiting for her daily shower of paternal praise.

“It is sung by John Lennon,” I replied, beaming with pride. “You are a genius.”

“John’s dead though isn’t he, Daddy? He was shot wasn’t he Daddy? A bad man shot him didn’t he Daddy? And it was his wife’s fault wasn’t it, Daddy?”

“No, no, no, mate. He was shot by a naughty man. Yes, that’s true. But it wasn’t his wife’s fault. I said it was her fault for ending The Beatles.”

“It wasn’t Paul’s wife’s fault for making The Beatles finish was it, Daddy? Is that why Paul is still alive?”

“Look, the wives are not to blame for anything. It was sad that John and George died so young. It’s always sad when that happens. But it wasn’t their wives’ fault in any way.”

“Daddy … Did a naughty man shoot George?”

And the record plays itself all over again.

As a first-time father, death is proving to be a complex issue, obviously. My daughter visited her sick great-grandmother on a recent trip to the UK. They held hands together. Barring a miracle – and anything’s possible with my indomitable old Nan – there might not be another opportunity.

My daughter is now old enough to remember so I made her hold her great-grandmother’s hand so that she will never forget. Memories are immortal.

I knew the experience troubled her, but it was no less necessary. She will know why later. Until then, she struggles with the uncomfortable questions.

“Daddy,” she asked, clutching my hand as we left. “Is Nanny going to die?”

Unless we’re discussing Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, I do not lie to my daughter. But the truth stings so a little cotton wool of a white lie always dabs gently at the pain.

“She will one day and her pain will be gone,” I mumbled. “She will sleep and dream all the time.”

“A bit like John and George, Daddy.”

I laughed. I had to.

“Yes, a bit like John and George, but please don’t keep referring to dead Beatles all the time in public, or nice people from a place called ‘social services’ will come and interview your Daddy, OK?”

But that’s where we are at with the “D” word. The concepts of life and death are now familiar to her. She is increasingly aware of her own mortality, she recognises when loved ones die they do not return and why Snow White should avoid that poisoned apple at any cost.

Most disturbingly of all, she knows that John was shot and George wasn’t.

Still, when she runs to me for a bear hug, squeezing me tightly and seeking reassurance after another discussion about the “D” word, I occasionally catch myself considering my mortality.

I know I’m not going to live forever. But in such moments I promise to give it a damn good try.


About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His latest Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is a No.1 national best-seller. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Men’s Health and Young Parents in Singapore. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.

First published in 29-04-2013.

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