The Things We Dread
I’ve never been able to talk — or even think — about death. And then, one day, my three-year-old made me do both.
It’s a beautiful midwinter day. The sky is clear; the air smells like frost and firewood; aside from the obvious, life is pretty lovely today.
So let’s talk about death, shall we?
First, let me explain why I want to talk about this (or, more specifically, feel like I need to): because until very, very recently, death was not a topic I could even begin to unbox in my mind without sparking an emotion that was some singularly crushing combination of despair and utter panic. The feeling that I got when I allowed my mind to wander to the death of anyone from my dogs to my husband to my parents to myself was so intense it felt like a living thing that I had to keep under lock and key, because if it got out it would consume everything it touched. I felt it — still feel it — physically, like a fireball in my chest. If I allow it even the smallest gasp of oxygen, it instantly expands far beyond the borders of my body.
I wonder if I’m alone in this feeling. I suspect I’m not.
When I think about death, I cannot move. I can barely breathe. And so I don’t think about it. I certainly don’t talk about it. It’s always been an utter mystery to me how people everywhere — millions and millions of people, myself included — just go about their days, eating and drinking and sleeping and acting like everything is totally fine when there is an unthinkably horrifying event that is absolutely going to happen at some not-especially-distant point in their future. It’s like driving down the highway with the full knowledge that somewhere on the road ahead of you is a twenty-car pileup, but singing along with a fun Sheryl Crow song on the radio anyway.
How do people do that?
Religion was not a part of my upbringing, and death was not discussed in my house beyond a shoulder-shrugging “It sucks, but what can you do?” I have always believed that death is the monster lurking in the shadows; our most terrifying childhood nightmare come to life. I was taught that people who are honest with themselves see death for what it is — a crushing blow; a terminal sentence — while everyone else is just indulging themselves in various palliative fantasies. Death ends it all, and beyond it is only darkness, and the only way to make it through all the things that happen beforehand is to ignore the inevitable, because if you don’t look death in the face maybe it’ll let you pretend it’s not there for awhile longer. So I learned to never acknowledge it; not ever.
Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night filled to the brim with the awareness that someone — everyone — I love will die, and I will lay there flat on my back with my heart pounding until I manage to wrestle the thoughts back into the cage where they belong. I live in terror of having my worst fears come to pass, and in anguish at the knowledge that they will.
I’m pretty fucking scared of death; I think that point has been hammered home. But now let me tell you the story of the day that started to change.
One night — a little over two years ago, when our son was three and our daughter was just a few weeks old — my husband and I were watching a movie late at night when the phone rang. My mother had just discovered one of our three family cats, Simon, dead underneath her bed. My father was out of town, and my mother was hysterical and had no idea what to do. I got in my car and drove into the city, handed my mother a glass of wine and told her to stay in the living room, and set myself about the task of extricating our cat from underneath the bed, wrapping his body in plastic, and then trying to wedge his rigid limbs into various tote bags until I found one that fit. I covered him with as much ice as the refrigerator could make and went to sit with my mother.
In the morning I carried the tote bag to the vet to have our cat cremated. I drove home and found my son in the kitchen, eating breakfast. He wanted to know what had happened; why I hadn’t been there when he woke up. I explained that I had gone to Nana’s the night before because a sad thing had happened and that she had needed me. “Simon died,” I said. “Do you know what that means?”
“I did the puzzle with the fire truck sounds all by myself,” he said, and took another bite of his waffle.
A couple of weeks later, we drove into the city for dinner with my parents, and when we walked into the apartment my son stopped short.
“There are two cats here,” he said. “Wesley is here and Roxie is here, but Simon isn’t here because he died.”
And then, later that night, after dinner and bathtime and a story: “Mommy?”
“Yes?” I asked, already trying to remember where I’d left the sippy cup that he was about to ask for.
“Where did Simon go?”
I remember the exact second I realized I was terrified of death. I was in the Caribbean, of all places, at a beach called Cemetery Reef because it bumps up right alongside an aboveground cemetery (really the only kind they have in the Caribbean, because you can’t put bodies into earth that’s all filled up with water). I looked at the gravestones, and I looked at the beach, and all of a sudden I couldn’t take it, how sad I was. I asked my dad what happens when you die.
“They put you in a box in the ground,” he said.
I don’t fault him for that. People believe what they believe, and that sort of blunt honesty has its own kind of value. But the moment that the words left my father’s mouth I knew that as crushing as they were, I did not believe them. I didn’t know what I believed, but I knew it wasn’t that.
I’ve remembered that moment in Cemetery Reef my whole life. I’ve thought of it even more often since my own children arrived, and since I’ve been aware of the question that’s in my future: “Mama, what happens when you die?” I’ve never known how to answer that, how to make my children less afraid than their mother. What I do know: that I want to give them the gift of being able to mourn without being crushed. Of being able to be sad, and then being able to be okay.
I want them to feel brave in the face of the one thing that brings us all to our knees.
And so when my son asked me where Simon had gone, my heart started pounding. We were alone in my my childhood bedroom — my parents watching Dancing With The Stars out in the living room; my husband showering; my daughter sleeping in her travel crib in the other bedroom— and I was struck with the realization that this, right here, was one of those moments in parenthood that are so big, so important. The kind of moment that your child may remember or he may not, but that will most definitely matter. And even though I’d spent years thinking about how I’d answer this question, when it finally was asked of me I found myself paralyzed, speechless.
I didn’t know what to say, and so I just said this:
“You know how you have a body? Skin, and hands, and feet, and fingers and toes?”
My son nodded.
“And you know how you have thoughts and feelings? How sometimes you’re happy, or mad, or sad?”
He nodded again.
“You see, bodies get tired after they’ve been doing things for a long time, and they need to rest. They run out of batteries, like a toy. But those thoughts and feelings you have, those things that made Simon who he was, those things that make me me and make you you, they stay. And when the body goes to sleep all those thoughts and feelings come bursting out into the world. Like this:”
— I clapped my hands together —
“They get released, and then they’re with us forever. We just need to listen for them. Because they’re there.”
And just like that, telling my son about death, I found out what I believe.
Read more on my blog, Ramshackle Glam.