All This Over a Cartoon

I’ve had three nervous breakdowns in my life so far. As of this writing, my most recent was at age 34. It was the slowest and least dramatic of the three, occurring at the crest of my emotional and neurological mess after my epilepsy diagnosis. That one felt like a slow motion descent down a metal slide in the summer in jean shorts with gravel at the bottom: I felt every bolt, seam, and burn as I inched downward. Thankfully, I’m 95% recovered (always leave margin for error) and now I’m feeling better than I did before the fall. 

My second happened when I was 17. Like the following breakdown, it too would be an implosion, but this would be quicker and far messier. Rather than a slide, I felt ass-over-appetite down a rocky cliff, hit the bottom, then got hit by a speeding truck. Why? Well, most of the breakdown happened due to PTSD, bottling up some deeply held personal trauma, and some immediate events in my life at the time. But that recovery didn’t go well at all. My home life was not supportive and I didn’t have the right people around to help me. I carried the remnants of that breakdown with me for years. Hell, I’m built into the person I am today because of it. 

But the first time I was four years old and it was because David the gnome died. 

Some unofficial and unprofessional backstory: In the 80’s, after Regan deregulated advertising in children’s programming, cartoons turned to absolute shit. Selling your kids toys became the raison d’etre for a new network show rather than quality. This is partly why parents (or in my case, grandparents) had to shell out money for expensive cable packages that included Nickelodeon for children to see anything of substance. That didn’t mean I watched anything phenomenally better than what I saw on network tv, but I guess there is an argument that The Little Prince and The Elephant Show were better than He-Man and Rainbow Bright. Not that having cable stopped me from watching the trash capitalist shows, of course: I was an indoor kid with an overprotective grandmother, a busy grandfather, and a working single mother, so television was a great babysitter and an even better outlet to the rest of the world. I may have been born into a working class world, but I was the first granddaughter, first niece, and first daughter — television was my family’s way of spoiling me when they couldn’t do so in other ways.

The World of David the Gnome was one of the better Nickelodeon shows I watched religiously. It was a Spanish show, dubbed into English, based on a Dutch book, and — get this — narrated by Christopher goddamn Plummer. Unlike the He-Mans and Rainbow Brights of the tv world, David the Gnome wasn’t trying to sell me anything. He was a tiny gnome — a doctor — who lived in a tree in the woods, who traveled around Europe and made house calls to heal sick animals and dispensed wisdom and kindness. His wife, Lisa, was a sweet house gnome who, though kept their treehouse clean and tidy and did laundry and cooking, certainly accompanied David on his adventures either on their fox friend Swift, or on a bird. If that wasn’t wholesome enough, Tom Bosley, the dad from Happy Days, voiced David the Gnome in his calm, craggy, grandpa-voice. 

David and Lisa, happy, jolly little gnomes, imparted plenty of important lessons on my still-plastic brain: first of all, David and Lisa (as I said) worked together most of the time, even though David was the designated “doctor” in the relationship and Lisa was the “wife.” Sure, it would have been good to see Lisa have a better station or challenge her role, but when she accompanied David on his trips, she wasn’t relegated to the role of “supportive wife” or “hold the children while David does the icky stuff.” Second, it taught me that calm, quiet, and educational children’s programming is vital at a young age. Bright, flashing colors and screaming violence are something adults can enjoy. David broke the fourth wall all the time and spoke to the pre-school audience about what he was doing and why. As a four-year-old, I didn’t have to know the ins and outs of thoracic surgery on an arctic fox, but here is this tiny, make-believe creature who is teaching me empathy at an age where I could be smashing ants in the backyard and not feeling anything about it. 

Finally, David the Gnome taught me about death. 

One morning, my mother got a call at work. She, a paralegal at a downtown law firm in Detroit, had just packed her briefcase and was just about to head to court with her boss and two partners when the secretary (her friend and someone who knew her status as a single mother with a precocious and somewhat neurotic young daughter) stopped her. “You’ve got to take this call,” the secretary told her. “It’s your father.”

Mom panicked and told the attorneys to wait for just a second. Less than two years ago, the four of us had been in a car accident two blocks from our house. While three of us were ok, my grandmother had been roughed up. Fearing another accident, she ran back to her desk and picked up the phone. 

“Dad?” she asked. “What happened?”

“It’s your daughter,” my grandfather, ever the matter-of-fact former truck driver said. “You’ve got to talk to her.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t get her out from under the kitchen table.”

“What? What’s going on?”

“David the gnome died.”

Mom blinked. “What?”

“Here she is.”

The three men who my mother had been currently holding up raised their eyebrows at her, expecting an answer. She held the receiver against her chest for a second and breathed, “I’m so sorry! It’s my daughter. Give me just a second to–”

I interrupted a second later with an ear-splitting, “Mommmaaa!!!”

In the lore of the television show, gnomes are not supposed to live past 400 years old. On the very last episode of David the Gnome, David and Lisa, having reached the end of their life, say goodbye to their animal friends and join another 400-year-old gnome at the top of a mountain. At the climax of the episode, David and Lisa tell their loyal fox friend, Swift, that he can’t follow them up the mountain and has to turn back. Then, once they get to the top, they join hands and turn into trees and their spirits float on. It’s absolutely beautiful, deeply resonating, and spiritual without being preachy. It did not talk down to its child audience but didn’t pull its punches about death and life moving on. As an adult, this was beautiful. 

But as a four-year-old, this was traumatic as fuck. I had just witnessed my kindly old gnome doctor friend and his even kinder gnome wife die. I had lost two cats before age four, but somehow David the gnome’s loss hit just too close to home. Aghast, I dropped my jaw and bawled. Then I shoved past my grandfather and burrowed under the kitchen table where I melted down. I chucked myself facedown on the yellow linoleum, legs twitching and face awash in tears. My confused grandfather had been in the dining room at the time, either reading a book or working a jigsaw puzzle, only half listening to what I was watching. When he attempted to pry the story out of me, I just wailed, “David the gnome died!” in my slurry, lispy voice, unable to articulate the anguish of his loss. 

I babbled out the story to my mom between little girl sobs. She pinched the bridge of her nose and tried to find patience and understanding. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry!” she consoled. Yet she had the best response for my blubbering: “But…I’m sure David will be back on Monday, ok?”

“Oh *gasp* kay,” I sobbed. 

“Can you put Poppa back on? I need to talk to him.” She avoided the glares from her contemporaries: What’s taking so long? We were going to settle then go to lunch! One of us was going to try to fuck you afterward! “Please try to come out from under the table.”

When my grandfather got back on the phone, I went right back to mourning. 

“What do you want me to do?” he asked. 

“Give her some scrambled eggs and a popsicle,” Mom instructed, because I was (and still am) a finicky child who won’t eat. “Now, I have to go to court.”

My mother was right: once my grandfather made me scrambled eggs and a popsicle, I crawled out of my Depression Pit under the kitchen table and nibbled away my sobs. My mom went to court, helped settle the case, and dodged sexual advances from her creepy bosses. Come Monday, Nickelodeon aired the first episode of David the Gnome again, and I largely forgot my Friday distress.

Four-year-olds don’t have the language skills to tell adults the nuance and complexity of their feelings. I didn’t know how to sit my grandfather down and say, “I’m distraught because I just lost a comforting presence in my life. Television takes up a major part of my life and I am learning a lot from what I’m watching right now, therefore seeing a character I care about die causes me to question my own mortality. That is a lot for me to think about right now at four years old.” And before you get onto me about death and children — yes, kids understand death. Whether it is a pet’s death or David the gnome’s death, kids know life isn’t permanent. I’m not speaking about this because I was some weird, worldy, pragmatic kid (though I was). I’m saying that because children are more capable and more sensitive to the world than we give them credit. 

I like to believe everyone is born knowing their lives are finite, but it takes them all different times in life to realize it. For me, I figured it out when I saw David the gnome turn into a tree. Since then, I’ve been a pretty cautious person. I play things safe. I don’t take many risks. I avoid confrontation. If a task or event may lead to pain or death, I ignore it. This has been my method of extending my short existence on this planet. This is the opposite of the “live free or die” method that a majority of people would take. Has my method made me happier? Who’s to say? I can’t say the alternative would have made me any happier or kept me alive any longer either.

But I’m here and there’s still time.