On Being Four

Birthday Letter to My Son:

You were four when I picked you up from school, and I could see that you were upset.

Moon Valley School

Moon Valley School
1975, Sonoma, California

“Mom, do you know what happens to us when we die!”
“Do tell.”
“Charlie sang a song about John Henry, and when he died, they buried him in the ground!”
“Well, what did you think happens to us after we die? You don’t see any dead people lying around on street corners.”
After a thoughtful pause you said, ”Well, I guess I thought we ate them.”
“No. Not in this country anyway.”
I saw the despair in your crestfallen face, realizing how serious this was for you.
“If we die, then what’s the point of living?” you demanded to know.

You were knocked sideways and down an existential path that felt too big for a four-year-old. It took a month to comfort you out of it, to try and reassure you. It took a month for you to think life would be worth living, even if you were going to die at some point. And it took a month for you to bounce back and be four and joyful and you again. That moment, the moment of meeting the prospect of pointlessness, adhered itself to your psyche. It surfaces for you when a crises occurs in your life. Your response is often, “What’s the point?” and I imagine it can hit you with the same intensity as that moment in Moon Valley School when a line in a song rocked your world.

It replayed when you were eighteen and broke up with Trina, your first serious girlfriend. Your words were, “If a relationship has to end, then what’s the point of having one?” It was a painful process for you, and your face again wore your despairing four-year-old look. It took you a month to feel like life was worth living again. It replayed when Brooke and unborn Satchel were struggling for hours on end in the delivery room and you came to sit with me for a bit in the waiting room, not voicing what we both thought might be possible, you struggling to maintain courage, looking scared and more like four-hundred rather than four, asking me in despair, “What’s the point?”

You were home for a visit, I don’t remember how old you were, maybe in college or just after, and I had Harry Belafonte on: … he laid down his hammer and he died, Great God, laid down his hammer and he died. 
Oh they took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand… refrained just as you walked by my bedroom door. You backed up, stuck your head in, and flatly stated, “I never did like that song.” I’d forgotten your four-year-old incident until that moment. Putting it together explained a lot about you, bringing back to me the times when painful moments brushed up against you and you pondered what’s the point or life’s not worth living—and the joy return to you when you remembered that it was.

Satchel Sevenau


Driving down East Napa Street with your son when he was four, Satchel piped up from his car seat, “There’s dead people under those rocks you know.” I looked over my left shoulder and see he’s looking at the cemetery.
“I know. That’s where they put our bodies when we die.”
“What do they do with the heads?” he queried.
I explained we no longer need our bodies when our spirit leaves.
“Yeah, but what do they do with the heads?” he asked again.

I made a further explanation about death and spirit and burial practices, and it wasn’t until a few days later when I’m telling Elaina the story that she had to explain to me his head question. I never did get back to him on that one. By then we’d moved on to Sparkle Fairies and the Apple Fairy and Hitler and bad men, and it all seemed too much to have to reopen the death conversation. Death does not appear to have hit Satch the way it hit you. He’s under the assumption that your beloved Sam and his Great-Grandpa Calvin are on the roof because you look up and point to heaven when he asks what happened to them.

Matt & Satchel Sevenau summer 2008

Matt and Satchel
Summer 2008

What were you like as a four-year-old? Serious, studious and intent, unless you were playing, and then you ran full-tilt boogie. Today you are forty, and nothing has changed. You are still serious and studious, unless you are mountain bicycling, snowboarding, or doing anything with a ball, a fishing line, or a barbell. You play as hard as you work, loving both equally.

Matt, Temple, Stachel 7-0 summer 2008

Satchel, Matt, Temple
Summer 2008

Today you have your children’s questions to answer. If they ask you what’s the point of it all, tell them that’s a big question, and that maybe it’s about love, and about living in this body on this planet, and that life is a full spectrum of possibilities.

I love you Matthew Sevenau, and am grateful you’re my son. You are a good man: capable, courageous, and committed. You are kind and funny. You are so you. Happy 40th, and may you live full-tilt boogie another forty more.

From your mother, Catherine
Jan 14, 2010

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  1. Cheryl Thompson says:

    You make me cry when you do this ~~ Happy, funny tears! cc

  2. just great

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