My just turned 3-year-old daughter Cybele wants to know about the inner workings of everything — a light switch, an escalator, a jet, what have you.
I can’t explain any of these things to her off the top of my head (unlike the engineer protagonoist in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court). I basically have to tell Cybele, much more often than not, “I’ll get back to you on that.” So it was, for instance, on how way down an escalator, and she wanted to know how in the world it was the escalator “knew” to take us downward. As soon as we got home, I went straight to Google and versed myself on the mechanisms in an escalator that make this possible. It was fascinating. A decent bit of it I sort of could speculate accurately on, but now I could really and truly explain it to Cybele in a way she could understand — but it also opened up a whole new world to me.
It’s cool to know how things work, and with a curious three-year-old as my ever present companion, I had an unequalled opportunity to enlighten not just her by myself.
The other day, we were standing on our front patio looking at some bright fall leaves in a nearby tree. Then my littlest princess looked at the brittle brown leaves on the ground. “Daddy, why are these leaves brown?”
I told her in so many words that they were dead. “How do they die?” she queried. Now, I’d studied this many times in years past, as has anyone who’s been schooled in any formal or informal way, but still I found myself at a loss to explain it to her. Something about a lack of adequate sunlight, sustenance, chlorophyll, stuff like that. So I gave her my stock reply: “Let me get back to you in just a little while, and we’ll both learn about how they die.” This reply is never a copout; it just means I genuinely want to know the answer to, so I can also convey it accurately to her, so I need to buy a little time.
Meanwhile, Cybele had this idea: “Daddy, let’s paint these leaves that fell so they’re the same color as the leaves in the tree.”
We did just that. We retrieved our paints and paintbrushes from them the house. We made them bright and lively again. As we did so, Cybele asked, “Daddy, are we making them un-die?”
In a way, we were, and I said as much. Now, you might think this musing is just a flight of fancy on Cybele’s part, but I’m convinced it isn’t. It’s from such musings that amazing things can come to be. For instance, apoptosis — which terms from the Greek term old, translated into “falling off” (like leaves falling off the trees) — the process of programmed cell death — is something being pored over by scientists and medical researchers, to understand, among other things, the triggering mechanisms for cancer.
The aim and expectation among some researchers is to one day be able to switch off, much like a light switch, the biochemical catalysts for aging itself — so that perhaps, one day, we’ll ‘un-die,’ no longer proceed forward on the march toward the final days of our mortal moment.
I bet some or many or most or all of those who are studying this intensively were prompted at some age — perhaps at age 3 or younger — by some version of the question, “How can we make living or once-living things un-die?”
I won’t be surprised if one day, spurred by her fascination with how things work and unwork, die and undie, Cybele is in the thick of things, among those who figure all this out, stemming untimely deaths from many forms of cancer and other illness.
And that it all began out of a sense of wonder of why it is that some leaves eventually meet their maker, and she was inspired to paint them with great dedication and care, in a way that, in her mind’s eye, returns them to the land of the living.