Last year, when my four-year-old son, Asher, first discovered that he would one day die, he cried for days. There was a point where I couldn’t get him to leave the house because he was lying on the floor, mourning his own impending death. I tried to explain that every living thing dies, but it did little to pacify him. I didn’t know what to do so I made a desperate decision—mainly so I could get us moving to wherever it was we were supposed to be going that day. I took a gummy vitamin from the cabinet and I brought it to him, cradling it delicately in the palm of my hand. “Asher, this is a special pill. If you take it, you don’t have to worry about dying.”
I skirted the lie. He won’t have to worry about dying. It doesn’t mean he won’t ever die.
“I won’t die?” he asked.
Crap. He got me.
“No,” I answer cryptically.
He took the pill. And then he picked himself off of the floor, wiped off his tears, and followed me out of the house. That night, he told my six-year-old daughter, Sydney, about it and she asked me to give her one, too. I complied, feeling kind of gross about it all. Over the next few days, my kids would repeatedly ask me if it really worked. I’d answer with vague statements like, “Perhaps.” I felt guilty about my lie, worried I was screwing up their understanding of death. But who wants to tell innocent children that life is fleeting and we will all eventually die?
I was a teenager when my dad died 25 years ago. At times I find it hard to connect to who he was, and what the loss is like for me. I feel the loss, but I don’t know how to connect it to anything. It’s like this confusing gaping sinkhole ripped right into the middle of my street, and since I don’t know how to fill it I just kind of avoid it, having built up a good sized protective barrier to make sure I don’t fall into the darkness below my feet. My siblings and I play a dark “game” of sorts. Our dad got sick at 48, and died at 50. As we each get closer to 48, we pretend the end is near for us. We evaluate our lives and lament the early loss of a life cut short—our own. There is no logical reason to believe that because our dad died young, of a random, non-smoking (non small-cell) lung cancer, that we will, too. But then we lost our uncle last year—my mother’s brother—to the same kind of lung cancer, and we wonder if it’s possible that science hasn’t caught up to finding the mutation in our genes we might carry from both sides of our family. Our maternal grandfather died of small-cell lung cancer, our maternal grandmother of breast cancer. Our paternal grandfather died at 60 from complications with his heart. We don’t have the most positive outlook when it comes to longevity.
My daughter, Sydney, thinks she can talk to our dead parents. The first time she told me this she was about four-years-old and we were driving in the car. “I can hear your dad,” she told me.
“Excuse me?” I asked, a little freaked out.
“I can hear Papa Neal,” she said. “With my special ears.”
A small part of me wondered if it was possible. Another small part of me wondered if she were mentally ill. But most of me knew she was just a kid trying to process death, and understand what it means, as she finds a way to incorporate it into her psyche.
“Please tell him I love him,” I said. “And that I wish he could meet my family.”
“I will,” she said. “He said he loves you, too. And he misses you.”
So my son thinks he’s living forever because I gave him a gummy vitamin, and my daughter thinks she talks to dead people. How badly am I screwing up this parenting thing, I wonder. My kids’ interest in death makes sense considering my family history—but also my wife’s history. My mother-in-law died when my daughter was three-months-old. Her death had a big impact on the family and “Grandma Carol” is talked about often. The kids know she died but they also think they can see her if they can get to the moon. Because that’s where she lives. Because my wife told them that’s where she lives.
A few weeks ago I got a phone call from my wife’s sister. “Dad fell and is being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He is in and out of consciousness.” The fall, a result of his debilitating COPD from years of smoking, pneumonia, and emphysema, was fatal. Roy, their father, was septic. He spent a week on life support before finally succumbing to death, surrounded by his family, while we played him some of his favorite music. It was a hectic time, and the kids noticed we weren’t around as friends pitched in to help, and we all took turns sleeping in the ICU with my father-in-law. To prepare our kids, my wife and I told them that Roy, their “Poppi,” was going to die. Sydney cried silently, and Asher asked a lot of questions. “Where are people when they die? Is Poppi going to the moon?”
“We don’t know.”
“Wait, Poppi knows that he’s almost going to die?” Asher asked.
“And he’s very sad for hisself that he’s going to die?”
“Sure,” I said. “He’s a little sad, and scared, but it’s also his time. And he’ll be able to see Grandma Carol again.”
“Your dad’s up there, too” Asher said. “They’re all going to be together.”
“What are you thinking, Asher? Are you ok?”
“I’m just thinking that I’m so sad.”
“That’s what I’m thinking, too. I’m feeling the same way as you.”
Sydney spoke up, “He won’t be able to see Grandma Carol.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because he won’t have his eyes.”
“Why won’t he have his eyes?” I asked.
“Because just his skin gets buried.”
“No,” I answered. “When he dies we will bury his whole body.”
“Even the eyes?”
“Will he go to heaven?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that one. So I told the truth. “We don’t know if there’s a heaven, but we do know you go in the ground. And then trees grow in the ground, and fruit grows on the trees...”
Sydney knew I was recording the conversation, and leaned towards the phone. I told them I would play whatever they said for Poppi. “I love you, Poppi. Please, please stay longer.”
Asher leaned over the top bunk of his bed. “But he cannot stay longer. Because when he dies he cannot just make magic with his hands to come back alive. He can’t do that. He’ll just stay like that forever.”
I hoped that despite Carrie and my missteps that we were doing enough to help our kids cope with Poppi’s inevitable death.
We had their Poppi’s funeral last week. Many of us spoke, telling stories about Roy and his life in a way he would have appreciated—with humor and honesty. I cried while eulogizing him, having the weight of his loss suddenly feel so real in that moment. I cried for my wife and sister, pained from the loss, and hurt with the realization that they are now orphaned and only have each other. I also cried when I realized what Roy had been to me. That while my father helped raise me as a child, I had no man in my life as I became an adult. And it was from Roy where I learned how a man interacts with his children, and I learned how to interact with a man. And now Roy was dead. I suddenly felt the gaping sinkhole at my feet again, and although I felt precariously on the edge of it, for the first time in many years I looked down and saw that it wasn’t as deep as it used to be; That my children, my wife, my friends, and my family, have helped fill the hole enough to where I can at least see the bottom. And I know if I do happen to slip, my fall will now be cushioned. And I’ll be able to get back up, fully intact, and climb my way back out of it.
After the funeral, the kids lie awake in bed and asked me questions about my father.
“How old were you when Papa Neal died?” they asked.
“I was 16 when he got sick, and 18 when he died,” I answered.
“What do you mean sick?” they asked.
“Cancer,” I answered. “A very rare form of cancer in the lungs.”
“Are you going to die?” they asked.
“I am. Everyone dies.”
“I don't know,” I answered.
“I don't want you to die,” they pleaded. I felt a pain in my heart.
“I will not die until you are ready for me to,” I answered.
“We don’t want you to die,” they said.
“I will be here for as long as you need me.” I gave them a hug.
One day, hopefully not for a very long time, my kids will have to deal with the death of their own parents. I know some of their questions are a way to try to wrap their heads around the concept of mortality. But they’re also a way of trying to understand their own mortality, and that of their parents. I wondered if Carrie and I had given them too many mixed messages. I lied to them about a pill that can keep them alive forever, Carrie lied to them that their grandma was on the moon, and they had no idea where my dad was because I have answered everything from “heaven” to “nature.” Are the kids of a therapist going to be in therapy complaining about how badly their parents botched the subject of death?
Last night I was putting my shoes away in the hallway closet. I heard Sydney ask Asher, “Remember when dad gave us that special pill so we won’t die?”
Asher said, “That was just pretend. It was a vitamin.”
Sydney said, “I know.”
I started to walk over and apologize for lying to them, but I stopped myself. They continued to speak with each other about death. And then that naturally rolled into a conversation about farting. Because farting is funny. And then they laughed, and wrestled, and fought, and made up, and went into their room to play. I walked over to say hi but they shut the door before I got there. Although I wanted to lie on the rug with them in a pile of toys, I stayed outside of the room; I’m not planning on going anywhere for a long time, but I know they need to learn to be without their parents. Because if I want them to believe I will be there for as long as they need me, I need them to learn to live without me.