Originally posted Feb. 27, 2008
"Oh my God! Mr. Rogers died," I gasped, my inner child
forgetting to censor herself, as I scanned the breaking news on the
AOL welcome page.
"No he didn't, Mommy, he's on T.V.," Noah assured me, with the
sturdy confidence of a four-year-old.
It's ironic that I learned the news of Fred Rogers' death, five
years ago today, while my kids watched a re-run of Mr. Rogers'
Neighborhood just a few feet away from where I sat with my
laptop. Since little ears miss nothing, a convoluted
discussion about death and the magic of television ensued. It
wasn't pretty. Mr. Rogers would not have been impressed.
PBS began airing Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968, the
year after I was born. I was raised on a full helping of
"Won't you be my neighbor?" along with my breakfast cereal every
morning. Decades later, I watched the
airing of the last episode with my own children, two-and-a-half
years before his death. He sang the closing song, same as
always, as he unzipped his familiar cardigan sweater and slowly
took off his blue sneakers:
"I'll be back, when the day is new, and I'll have more ideas for
you. And you'll have things you want to talk about. I
(I still know the tune. I bet you just hummed it,
The words to the song may have been the same, but it felt
palpably different this last time. I felt his grief, which
was plain to see in his trembling lips and glistening eyes. I
heard it in his voice as it broke over the words he'd sung at the
conclusion of nearly a thousand episodes of the
Neighborhood. I cried with him as he closed the door on
his television house and on his show, with a final wave to his
television neighbors. That wave. My heart ached for
Rogers' magic was his simplicity, and his ability to quietly
convey messages of affirmation and acceptance: "You always
make it a special day and a special week for me, by just your being
you. There's only one person in this whole world like you; that's
you yourself, and I like you just the way you are," he
always told us.
No bells or whistles were necessary to grab our attention.
No flashy sets or elaborate special effects were employed to
sustain our interest. He wasn't even acting. He was
just there. He was present. His affirmation of
us was captivating enough, a model we parents would do well
to emulate as we wonder what it is that our kids really
need from us - while we're out there scrambling to satisfy
them with Ipods and the right brand of jeans.
As Rogers so eloquently stated in an old television interview
with PBS's Charlie Rose, "What is essential is invisible to the
eye." This quote from Antoine de Saint - Exupery (The
Little Prince) was one of his favorites, and hung on his
office wall as a reminder that what is important is connecting with
others. What is essential to life and healthy
development can be experienced in those moments of
connection. I believe they are both right.
As a family therapist, Mom and child of the world, I am
intrigued by the primitive need we all have, beginning in infancy,
to attach to and experience connection with at least one other
person. The nature of the attachments we experience in our
formative years, whether they are positive or negative, sets up our
expectations for future relationships. If we are lucky, this first
experience of attachment or connection is with a parent, hopefully
one who interacts with us in healthy ways. I sadly imagine
that for some children, especially those with chaotic family
situations, their daily encounters with Mr. Rogers, now made
possible only in re-runs, gives them their only sure sense of
connection - even if merely a 'virtual' one.
Several years ago when we lived in Pittsburgh, where Rogers
taped his show for thirty-eight years, my husband Todd, also a Mr.
Roger's devotee, spotted him crossing the street several yards
away. "That's Mr. Rogers!" he sputtered in disbelief,
looking like a stunned four -year- old who'd just seen his favorite
superhero leap out of a comic book.
"See if you can get his attention," I implored, tugging at his
"Mr. Rogers! Mr. Rogers! Thank you!" my fully grown
boy-man yelled frantically out the car window as he struggled to
roll it down. Much to our surprise, Rogers wasn't just a
figment of our imaginations. We were real to him too, and he
waved back. He waved at us, just like he always
did on T.V. He took my breath away.
I regret that I never actually got closer to him than that
simple greeting on a Pittsburgh street. But in that brief
moment, I felt like he truly was my neighbor, just like I did when
I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television with my
cereal, so many years ago.
Maybe my little boy was right. Mr. Rogers will never
really die. He lives on in re-runs, after all. But it
already feels like a different neighborhood somehow. I miss
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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