In hindsight, I should have known.
I should have read it to him myself.
But we had brought home the audio CD, (read by the author, EB White) from the library and Alden just LOVES to listen to stories on CD while waking up slowly on a lazy weekend morning or while winding down after a busy day at school.
We’d listened to A Cricket in Times Square. We’d listened to the first TEN Magic Treehouse books. We’d listened to a few chapters of Little House in the Big Woods before he decided he didn’t really like it. (We’ll try that one again someday.)
I should have, at the very least, been listening along with him, cuddling on the couch, talking about all the interesting parts. And I HAD been listening, in and out, as I moved around making beds, washing dishes, putting away a few things. We laughed together about the stinky egg that Templeton had been hiding under Wilbur’s trough. We discussed what “Humble” meant.
But I was only giving the story half an ear, and so I was startled when I walked back through the living room, arms full of something, and saw my four-year-old crumpled up, sobbing, on the couch.
“What happened, buddy?” I dropped everything and scooped in, gathered him up into my arms. “Did you fall off the couch? Are you hurt?” A tiny shake of the head as he continued to cry, burrowing against me. And I realized.
Oh my god, he had just listened as Charlotte, having saved her friend from certain slaughter, and come to the end of her natural (short) life-span as a spider, was left behind at the fairgrounds to die. This is what he had just heard:
Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.
Alden cried and cried, and I cried, too, as I held him. He sobbed like his heart was broken, and I think it kind of was. Because Charlotte is a FRIEND. A Best Friend. She’s even almost like a MOM! And this isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen.
We stayed in our couch cuddle, and heard most of the last two chapters, eventually, in which Charlotte’s babies, carefully carried back to the barn in their egg sac by Templeton, finally hatch out, and three little spiders choose to stay and be Wilbur’s new friends, and in which it’s clear that Wilbur lives a long happy life and is never lonely and never forgets Charlotte, and by the end of it, Alden was smiling again.
But. That first heartbreak of losing someone you’ve come to care about? That’s part of it, now. Life has love, and life with love in it has grief. Oh, how I wish I could wrap him up in a protective web… but since I can’t, I hope I will be able to hold him and cry with him each time his sweet and loving heart cracks open a little bigger.