He hasn’t left his room in three days, and the Ritz cracker crumbs are starting to pile up. His thin preschooller hair sticks to his scalp in sweaty, unbathed clumps, and the odor of rancid baby powder hangs heavily in the air. If you listen closely, you can hear a faint whisper of a single word emanating on repeat from a crumpled heap of firetruck-themed bedsheets: “Why?”
Tommy Jones, age 4, stares into the abyss of existential despair.
Rewind two months. Tommy views the 1998 seminal film A Bug’s Life for the first time. His little face awash in the glow of the screen, his eyes lit up by the glow of the screen, and his smile only visible because of the glow of the screen, Tommy is filled with a sense of magic. The tale of intrepid Flik, the entreprenueral ant who just won’t accept the status quo, speaks to Tommy on a spiritual level. Seeing the oppressive grasshopper (inventively named Hopper and voiced by Kevin Spacey—yes really), Tommy can’t help but draw parellels to his mother and her refusal to buy him candy at Shop Rite. He thinks these characters will live forever. He believes in Santa Claus. Tommy has found his fairy tale, and he will never let it go.
But the four-year-old son-of-two is doomed to learn the truth.
“The first straw was the whole Santa Claus thing,” Pamela Jones, Tommy’s mother, told Jester, “His cousin Jessica ruined that one for him. I could tell he was shaken by it, but I really thought he’d be able to bounce back.”
She pauses to wipe away a tear, and then adds, “I think the Bug’s Life incident, which came so soon after finding out about Santa, was what put him over the edge. It’s what forced him to really confront his own mortality and the mortality of all living creatures.”
The big reveal comes in Tommy’s “3’s and 4’s” preschool class in the unit on bugs, or, as Miss Gordon makes very clear in the lesson, insects. The class is presented with an illustrataed version of the monarch butterfly’s life cycle and Anna, one of Tommy’s least favorite classmates, decides to indulge her insatable thirst for knowledge by asking how long the cycle takes. Joey, Tommy’s ex-best friend, follows up with inquiries about other bugs’—excuse me, insects’—life spans.
Male ants live no longer than a few weeks, females from several months to a year. An adult flea is only alive on this Earth for two to three months.
Tommy is four years old. Tommy doesn’t know much about math. But even Tommy knows what a month is and what a year is, kind of. He knows that he is four years old because that is the question he gets asked the most. And he knows somehow, deep in his gut Tommy Jones knows that A Bug’s Life was made before he was alive. None of the characters he loves and dreams about and talks to can possibly still be alive. They must be dead. Death. Death is real.
His world is shattered.
Back at the Jones residence, Pamela knocks gently on her son’s door. No answer. She slides it open a crack and pokes her head in, says, “Honey? You ready to come on out of there?”
A muffled wail of anguish chases us from the threshold and down to the kitchen table. Pamela pours us both a glass of water and takes a sip from hers. Her face is lined with the exhaustion of caring for the bereaved child.
“I just don’t know what he’ll do when he finds out that the characters were never alive in the first place,” she says, shaking her head, “He’s such a sensitive boy. I’d hate to see him question the nature of life itself at such a young age. Save it for college, you know? That’s what I always thought was the healthiest time to confront big, existential conundrums.”
By: Cary Chapman