"Girls, I have to tell you something about Uncle Bill."
Uncle Bill was my husband's 97-year-old great-uncle. A rock star on the 1930s tool and die scene, he later became an unapologetic hoarder of machine parts when he retired. His basement was packed wall to wall with a bevy of broken washing machines, deep fryers and pieces of push mowers -- and God help the person who dared lay a finger on any of it. Unless, of course, you were interested in buying something. Then he would happily part with whatever it was at a price only slightly above market value.
In his later years, his treasures expanded to things like sofa paintings and rotting bags of fruit that he "bought outright." My father-in-law told me that once there were rumblings of an intervention, but Uncle Bill was old and the family decided they would wait him out. That was 30 years ago.
"Is it Uncle Bill's birthday, Mom?"
"No, honey. It's not his birthday," I said, pausing to give myself a moment to figure out exactly how I was going to do this. They continued to mechanically shovel cereal into their mouths, oblivious to the bomb hovering overhead.
I carefully considered my approach. Should I ease into it softly, maybe with a speech about death actually being a beginning? The beauty of the universe? The wonder and glory of the mystery that is life? I looked at my watch and saw it was almost time for school.
"Girls, Uncle Bill is dead."
Three pairs of little wide eyes staring at me, cereal pocketed in their cheeks, frozen mid-chew. A drop of milk dribbled from my 4-year-old's lip to the table. Silence, but for the wheels turning in their little heads.
This was my first big-time parenting talk, if you don't count the time my eldest walked out of the bathroom with two tampons stuck up her nose, asking, "Is this right?"
I didn't know what to say next; this was as far as I'd practiced in my mind. Until this point, my kids' only interaction with death had been via Disney movies and three goldfish we'd brought home from a wedding. I handled the goldfish by secretly flushing them and telling my kids we had been robbed while they were sleeping.
Finally, my 5-year-old broke the silence:
"Who's Uncle Bill?"
"The old man at Thanksgiving dinner."
"No, that's Uncle John. The other old one."
"The one who fell asleep when he talked?"
"How did Uncle John die?"
"Uncle BILL. He was very old and he went to sleep and died."
"When I get old I am never going to sleep."
"Is Uncle John going to die?"
"Well, eventually. Because everyone dies, kids. Even me. Even you."
Eyes widening even bigger, blood draining from their faces. Gears smoking from the speed of the wheels turning in their heads. I had accidentally taken this in a bad direction. Again, I looked at my watch.
"OK, good talk, girls. Please save any additional questions for after school. Now, tonight we are going to a wake, and there will be something called a casket there. Inside the casket will be Uncle Bill's body. His soul is in heaven, so remember that it will be just his body, nothing else."
"If just the body is in the casket then what did they do with his head?"
"The head is in there, too. Head attached to body. Head, body, the whole enchilada. Now finish your cereal. We're late."
Walking into the funeral home, I had the same What could possibly go wrong? mentality of a deer right before he leaps onto the freeway. After a few minutes of offering our condolences to my husband's cousins, we meandered up to the casket.
"Mom! All his hair fell out!"
"GIRLS. For the last time. That's Uncle BILL in there, not Uncle John."
Eventually the novelty of a dead body wore off and my kids noticed the slide carousel projecting pictures onto a screen. Frankly, I was happy to move on -- you can only stare at a dead body so long before your mind starts playing tricks on you.
They used the projector to make shadow puppets and funny silhouettes on the wall. I considered telling them to cut it out, but this had been a heavy day for all of us and I looked at their liveliness as a welcome distraction from the moroseness of the night. I sat down on the couch and let myself begin to relax. This is what we identified in ninth grade Lit class as the "Tragic Moment."
"Hey Mom! LOOK!" My 5-year-old pointed across the room to something behind me. The way her eyes danced with a mixture of terror and excitement, combined with the Oscar-worthy gasp that came from the back of the room, told me this was serious. I turned slowly, the same way someone might if they were brushing their teeth and heard something growling behind the shower curtain.
I don't know exactly what I expected to see behind me, but it definitely was not a redheaded 3-year-old who had scaled her way up the kneeler, balancing by her stomach on the edge of the casket, using Uncle Bill's forgiving stomach as a makeshift pair of bongos.
Over the low murmur of the crowd I heard her little voice.
"Ya put de lime in de coconut and drink it all up..." Her brow furrowed as she focused all mental energy on hitting his navy blazer in a freestyle two/four count.
As with most traumatic experiences, my life flashed before my eyes. It paused on a moment 20 years prior -- me sitting on my bed imagining how amazing it would be to one day have a perfect little family. There was no yelling. No ulcers. We had meaningful family talks. We could go in public without anyone defiling a corpse. At no point did it involve me working through a sketchy plan to remove my daughter from a casket without bringing down the whole house of cards.
I knew I needed a wide berth, so as not to spook her. Her instinct would be to flee, and in this case she would flee across Uncle Bill's face.
It was when I neared the casket that I knew beyond a doubt that Uncle Bill was really, truly dead. Alive, Uncle Bill would never have stood for such shenanigans. It's not that Uncle Bill didn't like kids -- but he definitely would not have been happy about lying there and entertaining a crowd with his body as an unwilling musical instrument.
I snatched her by her underarms, and in one fell swoop pulled her off the body and threw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She was startled and also upset that I didn't appreciate her performance.
"But I want to see Uncle Jooooooooohnnnnn!"
"For Christ's sake! UNCLE BILL!"
"Here," I said, passing her off to my husband. "I have to run to the bathroom real quick to make room for the massive amount of alcohol I am about to dump into my stomach."
Taking a moment to reflect, I realized what a difficult concept death is for children to grasp. Being slapped in the face with such a harsh reality of life, when up until now the entire world had bent over backwards to convince them of the reality of Santa and fairies and wishes coming true... If Santa is real, then magic is real, and why does anyone have to die? Their world is extremely complex, and sorting it all out is more difficult than I give them credit for. Feeding them the right amount of information to protect their fragile innocence and simultaneously introducing them to the world is near impossible.
Walking out of the bathroom, I found all three girls standing outside the door as still as statues -- eyes wide, blood drained from their faces as they stared at the man standing in front of them.
"Wow! Your girls are really quiet tonight!" Uncle John, brushing off the cold, marveled.
I patted his shoulder and smiled. I didn't have anything left.
"They think you're dead," I said, heading for the door.
"Oh, and whatever you do in there, don't sing calypso," I yelled over my shoulder. "It's too soon."
This story was one of four winners in the Term Papers competition at the 2015 BlogU Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
Original illustration by Jake Reeves.