Tuesday, September 20, 2005 | I cried last night at dinner. My husband, absorbed in a discussion with our older son about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, compared the point of his high school thesis paper on Plato’s work to a child’s discovery that Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, is not real. As they debated the philosophical ramifications of the possibility that truth is lie, light is darkness and good is bad, our younger son stopped chewing his food, put down his fork and looked thoughtful. Finally, during a break in the lively conversation, our younger son interrupted and said, “Excuse me, but I have a question. Is the Tooth Fairy not real?”
We stared at him in disbelief. Seconds passed. In one unthinking moment, we had inadvertently ended his faith in a magical world and crushed a belief he has carried with him since his earliest memories. And we had also, oddly enough, just demonstrated a perfect example of the Allegory of the Cave: basic assumptions of the truth are not an absolute certainty, and realizing the falsehood of one’s core beliefs can be overwhelming to accept.
Our younger son is 9 years old. We couldn’t remember when our older one stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy. But in all my years as a parent, I have found nothing more charming than our children’s belief in the existence of a magical pixie woman who buys lost teeth from kids who place them under their pillows at night.
Both our kids used to write notes to the Tooth Fairy on occasion. Because he gulps his food without chewing, our older son swallowed several of his loose teeth. When he would discover, after devouring a bagel, that one of his teeth had come out and been swallowed, we would fashion a fake tooth out of Play-Doh and write a note to the Tooth Fairy, explaining the problem and asking if she would still be willing to buy the tooth even though it was fake.
She always did. And sometimes she wrote a note back. After hearing how she would write to his older brother, our 9-year-old adopted the habit of writing notes to her whenever he lost a tooth and had some special story to tell about the circumstances.
The excitement in their eyes when they awoke in the mornings and reached under their pillows to find the coins and sometimes her notes will stay with me until the day I die.
After realizing what we had done last night, neither my husband nor I wanted to answer his persistent question. Yet he pressed for an answer, unrelenting, because it was exceedingly important to him that we tell him the truth – even though, he later confided, he had had his suspicions about her existence for quite some time.
Reluctantly, we told him. And I felt like I had betrayed him all these years. Did we lie to him? Or did we keep an important fantasy alive?
The event was never about the money; it was all about the magic and the wonder. It was about a personal visit from an enchanted creature who cared about him more than anything else at that moment in time.
He was circumspect upon hearing the news, chewing it over, along with what was left of his dinner. Trying to hide my watery eyes, I nodded yes after he asked me, “So Mommy, do you have all my teeth then?”
I was inconsolable. My mind raced back to when he was 5 years old and had lost his very first tooth. He was overjoyed at this miracle, and exuberant over the possibility of finally receiving a visit from the fabled Tooth Fairy.
I will never forget his cry of pure joy upon discovering the coins under his pillow that next morning. I still remember his words: “She came! The Tooth Fairy came! She came to ME!”
But she shall come no more. Although there are still teeth to come out, the fantasy is over. And I am morose.
Having my younger son believe in the Tooth Fairy was like having someone in the house who still believed that anything in life is possible, that miracles can happen.
Seeing my tears spill over at dinner, our 9-year-old crawled into my lap, to comfort me. Odd, that. It was his fantasy that had been shattered, not mine. But for me, the passing of the Tooth Fairy represents more than the end of a make-believe world. Skepticism in the miraculous will now replace his unfettered willingness to believe almost anything, especially the power of magic. So I mourn the inevitable loss of his special childlike awe, wide-eyed innocence and his uninhibited delight over the simple human act of losing a tooth.
I told him that he now had to search a little harder to find magic in the world, but that it was still there, just hidden a bit more from view. Look for it, I told him, in rainbows and sunsets and the beauty of a cloudless day. Look for it all around, in kind people and good deeds, sweet smiles and strong friendships. It is harder to see, this magic, now that the truth about the Tooth Fairy is revealed, but it is there still.
Don’t ever lose that ability to see the enchantment, power and mystery in life, I said to him. You can find it in the love of your family, in the charity of strangers and in the majesty of nature’s splendor.
He smiled, hugged me and ran off to play.
He will cope and recover just fine. But will I?
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