Surviving

A child and his grandmother confront mortality with an elaborate dinosaur game

Questions were on Matthew’s mind. I’d seen that look on my grandson’s face many times. It was a Saturday evening—the beginning of a sleepover weekend—and the two of us were eating dinner. Stouffer’s lasagna, his favorite.

“What if our Milky Way galaxy got mixed up with another galaxy?” Matthew asked.

I’d grown accustomed to this latest line of interrogation. I placed my fork on my plate and lifted my gaze to meet his. We talked about Andromeda and how the stars in our galaxy and that one are moving toward one another, bit by bit.

Matthew filled in. “And we could crash?” Eyes wide, his face brimmed with the thrill and fear of such a possibility.

I nodded.

“And then what would happen to us? Die?”

I wasn’t prepared for that question—the end of life as we knew it. In a recent meeting with a financial planner, my existence was parsed in terms of how much money I’d need to navigate the life expectancy and finances chart. Though I am over seventy, the idea of “years left” slammed into my solar plexus, as if I were receiving news of my mortality for the first time. But at Matthew’s age—not yet seven—it would have never occurred to me to contemplate such a dire possibility.

• • •

Growing up in the mid-1940s, I spent my time outside of school roaming our small family farm and the surrounding fields in southern Pennsylvania. Most days, I climbed up the maple to sit in the tree house my father had built. My roost overlooked the barnyard, and I often imagined how the animals felt about life. The chickens didn’t seem a friendly group, flapping their wings, squawking loudly, and picking on one other. But I had a soft spot for our huge pink sow. I’d sing out, “Hellooo,” over and over until she waddled out of her doorway to root in the hay and roll in the dust. Her eyes were watery and droopy, and I worried she was sad with no pig friends. When a male pig was brought to stay with her for several days that winter, I was elated. Three months later, the sow delivered a dozen piglets, and I visited the tree house before and after school to see them. The sow seemed comfortable lying on her side, snorting happily as she nursed her brood.

The post-WWII era was a time of peace and prosperity, and farming was the good life for families like mine. Any stories outside my own immediate existence came via Life magazine.I studied the faces of people in groups, and despite our differences, I recognized mostly similarities in expressions—the happiness and joy, fear and anger, that made these families more like mine than not. Matthew had the world at his fingertips on a touch screen, but he also had more access to adult ideas about it.

• • •

“I hope we don’t die.” Matthew shifted his gaze to his plate. His bangs fell forward, nearly covering his eyes. He resembled his mother, a native of Cali, Colombia: dark brown hair, large brown eyes, and a lively expression that often gave way to a smile. But not now.

My turn to lead this discussion. “Galaxies—and the stars within them—are hugely far apart. We don’t really need to worry about planets colliding.” I had no idea if that was true, but it had the ring of plausibility, and reassurance was my main motivation. “You know what it would take? Several billion years for that to happen.” 

Matthew looked up. “So I would already be dead?”

“Oh, you would be way long dead.”

“But if it happened, then people would no longer be alive?”

From watching videos of prehistoric reenactments, Matthew was familiar with the theory that 65 million years ago, a meteoric crash brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was just a short mental hop to infer that humans would die under similar circumstances.

I interrupted our discussion of the planet’s inevitable doom by serving dessert—strawberries and chocolate chip cookies. Matthew picked up the whipped cream dispenser and lathered his bowl of strawberries, obliterating any trace of red. He popped one cream-coated berry after another into his mouth and then started in on the cookies. A good time to change the subject.

“Hey, if we start now, we’ll have time to play a dino drama before bed.” I knew this was an offer he wouldn’t refuse.

“OK, Lita!” he said. Lita is short for abuelita, “little grandmother” in Spanish, and I love the way he says it, holding on to the ah at the end.

Matthew stuffed the second cookie into his already full mouth and proceeded posthaste to our game venue. Several months ago, much to my friends’ horror, I’d converted my living room into a habitat for dinosaurs. Matthew’s lair for carnivores was against the far wall, where my desk and worktable stood, and the square glass-topped coffee table nestled between my brocaded couch and loveseat provided enough space to set up my den for plant eaters. I drew the shades on the windows to simulate the dusky environment of prehistoric tropics. On his last visit, Matthew had suggested a tunnel, so we roofed the space between the couch and the wall with an old foam mattress and hung blankets at each end to make the interior dark and spooky.

I never imagined myself dramatizing the violence and chaos of dinosaur life. But as a single grandmother, I was an eager host. And as a (now retired) teacher, I’d learned that the best insight into what consumed the minds of kids Matthew’s age could be found in their imagined tales. Release their storytelling impulses, and kids open up, voicing fears, fantasies, and visions of how to right the wrongs in the worlds they’ve created—and maybe in our own world, as well. Matthew’s carnivores stalking my herbivores allowed us to explore survival, an existential topic that gripped us both—one growing up and the other growing old.

I couldn’t see Matthew from the doorway, but I could hear him growling and hissing. Cardboard boxes provided his creatures with caves and hiding places under the worktable, behind the printer, and in the wastebasket. I headed to the small footrest I’d placed next to my coffee-table habitat, a spot to relax between encounters with Matthew’s assailants behind the loveseat.

“Matthew, are you going to introduce the chapter of tonight’s episode?”

He loved creating titles.

“Sure. This chapter is ‘When Matthew Makes the First Planet Destroyed.’”

So much for redirection. Matthew’s preoccupation with destruction was not going away.

He paused. “No, wait. This chapter is ‘When Big Al Makes the First Planet Destroyed.’” The fossilized remains of an allosaurus, nicknamed “Big Al,” had been uncovered in Wyoming back in the early ’90s, and Matthew had recently watched the BBC documentary. Big Al was now his prehistoric hero.

The game was on. I dropped to my hands and knees, and inched into my end of the tunnel.

Matthew lifted the blanket at his end and peered in. “I have a firebomb,” he growled. 

I took that as a threat and backed out—more difficult than crawling in. Every joint in my body objected.

 Matthew slipped into his end of the tunnel and emerged at the back of my habitat. Face to face, we engaged in a hostile encounter. Typically, our dinosaur figures served as our combatants, and we bumped and crashed them with abandon. This time it was full body contact—a real wrestling match. Within seconds, I was winded. I raised my hand, a plea for a time out, and eased myself onto the footrest. 

Matthew squinted. “You don’t want to play?”

“Yes, I do, but without the wrestling.” 

“But sometimes we do it, and you don’t mind.” 

He had that right. I hated more than anything to admit when I was too old to do something, but lately it had become too much.

Matthew crawled through the tunnel, back to his den. I couldn’t see him from where I sat. Stillness settled over the room.

“Matthew, remember? We’re doing the ‘First Planet Destroyed.’”

“Lita, we don’t need to do what the title is. We can just play.” His voice was soft, almost pleading.

 How did I forget? To play—to keep on playing—was the most important thing. “Good idea! Let’s do that.”

Matthew’s head shot up behind the loveseat. He catapulted over the couch into my habitat, his eyes wild. “Big meteorite creates thousands!” he shouted.

I didn’t know what that meant, except that we appeared to be headed to Armageddon.

Matthew grabbed two kid-size chairs and lined them up. “Prepare to take off! Quickly!” He motioned for me to sit behind him in the makeshift spaceship. Then he provided the sound effects that officially launched us.

After steering us into outer space, he turned to look at the fireplace on the far wall. “Arrrgh,” he moaned, “the planet is already destroyed. It’s molten rock.”

I recognized that line from a video we’d watched. Matthew liked to open the doors of the fireplace screen. He pretended the blackened interior of the firebox extended to outer space. It did resemble a black hole, and if I squinted, the charred remains resembled meteoric fallout.

“It’s hardly there,” I commented. “Just pieces of dust flying through the air.”

Matthew’s voice was shaky as he narrated the imagined devastation. “And the crumpled-up pieces are heading toward the sun. And we see little toys of our planet. And we see little rocks of our planet. And we can see a bigger version of our planet floating in the sun.”

I went quiet, taken with the beauty of his words. I could picture toys and rocks suspended in atmospheric dust, lit up by the sun’s rays, the planet’s destruction viewed from a safe distance in outer space. Of course, that safe distance was short-lived.

“OK,” Matthew shouted, “prepare to land on our new planet.” He spun a pretend steering wheel left, then right, and back again. Touchdown was smooth and quick.

“Maybe this will be a peaceful place?” I hoped to insert a bit of benevolence into our plot.

“But the bad guys will be here.” Matthew’s tone was nonchalant, as if no other choice existed.       

Bad guys. At Matthew’s age, my son Hans’s favorite hero had been Superman. We lived in New York City then, and every day after school, after watching reruns of the 1950s TV series, Hans would pretend he was Superman protecting the city. When Clark Kent transformed from mild-mannered reporter into his powerful counterpart, Hans would disappear behind the living room door and fling off his suit jacket to expose the S of his Superman costume underneath. Then he’d leap off a chair and land in front of me as if arriving from the sky. “Where are the bad guys?” he’d yell, his face flushed.

What I wouldn’t give to play Lois Lane again, a supportive bystander who believed that bad guys really could be vanquished. As Matthew took a bathroom break, I considered whether his idea—that bad always seemed to follow good—was really so novel.

• • •

On the farm, after the plump six-month-old piglets were sold, my father hired professional butchers to slaughter the sow. The gunshot woke me early in the morning. I raced downstairs to the kitchen, and my mother’s look told me what’d happened. I fell into her arms and cried. To me, the sow’s murder felt like a betrayal. What could be crueler than to slay her in an early morning ambush in what had been her family home? It also seemed dishonest. We pretended that the health of our creatures was for their own good rather than ours, then ended their lives at peak condition for our own consumption. But for my parents, the butchers, and all of our neighbors, this was a way of life.

Later that day, I headed for a walk by the stream across the road from our home. The path cut through clusters of trees and wound down to a waterfall. I sat on a boulder with the roar of the cascading water filling the air, the white noise making it easier to slip off to imagined destinations. I closed my eyes and pictured myself inside The Secret Garden, a favorite book. I unlocked the hidden door in the wall, free to enter the garden sanctuary of bright colors and sweet smells and, for a time, to keep life’s cruelties at a distance.

• • •

I wondered if Matthew struggled with a similar sense of injustice apropos the extinction of the dinosaurs. As far as I could tell, he’d yet to accept completely that an entire category of huge beasts could have been victims of a meteor smashing into our planet. After all, here he was, bringing them into outer space.

Matthew returned from the toilet and sat on the arm of the sofa. I interpreted that as a sign this episode was nearing its end. “My spirit went into the sun,” he explained, “to find the king of my brothers.” He paused. “Each brother is on a planet. And the king is Big Al.”

I was lost. Not just in outer space, but in his plot.

Matthew continued. “I threatened my own self and I killed myself on the other planet.” 

We locked eyes. What if his story included a torturous ending for him? Even though it was a game, I couldn’t go there. I held my breath.

“My spirit went to the king. I was only six years old. Now I’m dead. Do you feel sorry for me?”

I exhaled as I nodded.

“Then you pray to me because you feel so sorry for me.” 

“Pray?”

He nodded.

How did praying get into the plot? We’d never been here before. As I folded my hands in prayer, I made the connection. Easter Sunday was just a week away. Matthew, along with the rest of the children’s choir at his church, had been practicing hymns, learning the stories of Jesus and his death and resurrection by God, the Father, who lived in the heavens. If Jesus could avoid the finality of death through resurrection, then why not Big Al? Matthew had found a way to save his beloved dinosaurs.

“Then you see my skeleton flying in the air,” he said, “and you say, That’s his ghost. He’s not totally dead yet.” 

I laughed and repeated the line as directed, then clapped. Matthew smiled.

“Bedtime, Matthew. A good place to pause this episode.”

As he returned his dinosaur figures to his habitat, I found my way to the kitchen to finish up the dishes. I thought about the fact that Big Al—aka Matthew—had never been in danger of annihilation. What propelled Matthew, the way it had his dad and me, was the drive to survive. The game must go on. We sensed threats, and we needed to imagine ways to save not just ourselves but as much of what felt sacred as possible: the dinosaurs, New York City, and the farm animals.

E. B. White knew well the journey we were on. “But real life,” he writes in answer to children’s questions about Charlotte’s Web, “is only one kind of life—there is also the life of the imagination.” No matter that I couldn’t save the farm animals, or that Hans couldn’t purify New York City of corruption, or Matthew bring back the dinosaurs from extinction. It was our fully engaged imaginations that counted, our chance to design a plot, confront our biggest fears, and act out ways to combat life’s perils.

Matthew’s bed was in the den that opened onto our living room habitats, and when I stepped in to say good night, he was already asleep. I leaned over, gave him a kiss, and pulled up the covers. His slumbering figure appeared out of character in its stillness, vulnerable in a way he never seemed when we played.

Challenges to human survival have grown exponentially since my days on the farm. But while I worry for my grandson, in truth I am in awe of the ingenuity of his triumphs, of his youthful nerve. The message Matthew took from prehistoric times seemed to be that though the dinosaurs lived and died, life itself persisted. I have to believe that his intense desire to inhabit other worlds will prepare him to face his real future with that same courage and confidence. Meanwhile, I’ll be reveling with him and his band of carnivores for as long as they hold center stage in his imagination.

About the Author

Linda Stallman Gibson

Linda Stallman Gibson’s career as an early childhood teacher and professor of education at Queens College, CUNY, ended just as grandmother-hood and full-time writing began. She earned her MFA in 2016 from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is completing a memoir based on recordings of games, storytelling, and conversations with her grandson Matthew during his year in second grade (2007).

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