A dear old friend of mine lost his father last night. They were tight – my friend had relocated to be closer to his dad in the end of days – and he was able to be with his dad at the very end, so it’s going to be a hard grieve for him. But maybe it’s just as hard for those of us who weren’t as close to our parents, or who couldn’t be there for the last moments. I don’t know which is worse, the ache of guilt and abandonment or the ache of simple loss and absence.
If we’re lucky, we’ll all lose our parents instead of the other way around; and then if we’re lucky again in the next iteration, we’ll ache for our progeny as they lose us to death, which has to be better than watching our own children die. But it’s a bitter pill either way, and nothing for it but to wind our way to a graceful ending, if possible.
Thanks to my Jesse, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering death for a good 5 years now. It’s annoying and enriching.
A lovely neighborhood dog died when Jesse was three years old. Jesse loved Max, a large reddish-brown mutt with a long muzzle and a lot of fur. Max was a big teddy bear, gentle and mildly playful, a perfect dog for a child with severe anxiety. When he died, his human came by in tears to let us know. Jesse saw him crying and wanted to know why, and this was when Jesse became mildly obsessed with death for the first time. I was amazed that such a small child could suffer so for the loss of a doggy friend, though Max and Jesse did have a special bond. She had trouble pushing her head through his complete, forever gone-ness. “He’s GONE??” she would weep, day after day. Eventually she came to realize she would die, and also me and Anthony.
Jesse really, really doesn’t want to die. She’s not impressed by the idea of heaven. She lives in the moment and she wants to stay right where she belongs, here on Mother Earth.
I do my best to move Jesse’s mind off death at every opportunity, without hiding from it. We talk about spirituality, about life and love, memories and genes. I say what I think most of us would say to a child, little niceties. Things like, you don’t walk this path alone, Jesse, we’re all on the journey together. And also things like, let’s not lose sight of the life we’ve been blessed with here and now, just because we’re wasting our energy on fear of what lies ahead — in shadows or sunlight, depending on your mood, right? I figure someday she’ll find her own way to pondering the vast and bitter suffering of the human condition, and I don’t intend to lead her there on purpose.
One day Jesse made the enormous generalizing leap to a grim and strange reality: everyone will die. Everyone. Every thing. Every plant and creature, the planets, everything. I was there when the lightbulb turned on, and so I got to observe my child lose yet another piece in the puzzle of her innocence. She was overwhelmed. “Wait. Everything will die?? EVERYTHING?? All the people? Everyone I know is going to DIE???” It was an apocalyptic realization, which I couldn’t find a way to sugar coat. Yup, I admitted. The gig is eventually up for all of us. Jesse was overwhelmed with anticipatory grief and shock. The only solace I could give her – and it did make a difference – was that we wouldn’t all die AT THE SAME TIME. Apparently, this was a great relief.
And indeed, as I walk the strange journey I’m on as Intense Jesse’s mom, I’ve come to accept that it is a relief, albeit a small one. There’s a time and place for each of us, whether we perceive it as part of a plan or an arbitrary thing. Except for really bad times – disasters, epidemics, war – most peeps experience death in small doses, small enough to muddle through, mostly in one piece, even though in the moment of loss it feels unspeakably difficult. We scar over, we have moments of forgetting and remembering. Now and then at my age, a friend loses a parent; eventually, not so long from now, we’ll start losing each other. With each stroke of the death clock, I imagine we’ll relive our other losses, give thanks for what remains, and move on. The next generation demands it of us; our own parents, even as they leave us, demand it of us. Life, bitter and joyful, beckons.