At four years of age children are just beginning to deal in an appreciation of their own mortality. (Ive known some children deal with it younger, some older, but around four years is when children most often start worrying.) My four year old son Rafael was just beginning on this process. First the terrible suspicion, then the protests – “but humans arent animals, we are something else!” – and then the grief for their own mortality which is so often triggered by another death. But Rafael hadnt yet even begun to accept his own mortality when the news came in that we should expect the death of my mother-in-law.
She had clawed her way back from one short months diagnosis so it was hard for us all to believe that she wouldnt escape a second time – but still, I spent time thinking about just how to help my youngest son deal with the news when it came. I believe that the people we love dont leave us entirely and this is a belief that brings me a great deal of comfort – but just how to convey such an abstract concept to four year old Rafael? I needed some way to help him visualise a spirit still engaged with the living.
For his third Christmas my sister Steph had given Rafael the Graeme Base picture books that were to be found within a gift pack at all Post Offices. I love Graeme Base – as an Occupational Therapist I am always recommending parents use his books to push along their childrens visual perceptual skills in readiness for reading. Swiftly Jungle Drums became Rafis favourite of these books.
It is the story of the smallest warthog in Africa who attempts to change his status at the bottom of the pecking order by playing a magical drumset given to him by the oldest and wisest animal in the jungle – a soft-eyed wildebeest called Nyumbu. Rafi instantly loved her and, disregarding the logic that suggests a warthog and a wildebeest cannot be related, informed me that she was the little warthogs Grandmother.
Grandmothers are a big deal in his life – he lives with both one grandmother and great-grandmother and he always loved the infrequent visits he had to his Islander Grandmother, his Bubu, the marvellous person we were so shortly to lose.
So perhaps you can see where I am going with this! Being a Graeme Base book, in addition to the story this author and illustrator always includes several visual puzzles within the picture. In Jungle Drums one of the puzzles is the fact that Nyumbu, apart from the scene in which she gives the little Warthog the drums, is hidden on every page. She is composed of vegetation in some pictures, of shadows and clouds in others, sometimes she is sky outlined by tree – but she is there, watching over the little Warthog nonetheless.
So, suggested by Rafis instant recognition of her as a grandmother, and also by the coincidence of names – Bubu and Nyumbu are not so very different – Jungle Drums most unexpectedly became a parable by which I taught Rafi that the people we love are always with us somehow. It worked very well. I think it has also helped him deal with the idea that humans, like other animals, do die – death is made a bit easier to accept if we are clear that it is only to living eyes that people die.
On the evening the news came in we cried and I showed to my two big boys the paragraphs Id found which had bought their heart-broken Dad some comfort:
Gone From My Sight
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”
Gone from my sight.
That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the joyous shout: “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.”
And to Rafael I once again read Jungle Drums and I promised him that, like Nyumbu, his Bubu was still with us. And that night my eldest son Tim dreamed that he spoke with her. She said “dont worry, be happy, keep living” – an entirely in-character thing for her to say, and a remarkable thing for a child who saw her so infrequently to dream. And because of Jungle Drums those words became a gift not just to the older family members, but to Raf too. Like Old Nyumbu, she was paying a visit to help out a beloved grandchild, afterwards fading into the bushes to watch what happens.
I must say, I find myself wondering if this use was something that Graeme Base intended – and how many other people have found themselves using this book the same way?