When I was three years old, my dad's dad, my Grandpa Val, passed away in India. I never met him as he never visited the states and I didn't travel to India until I was five. One of my earliest memories (I think) is of my dad, sitting in the kitchen. It was evening and the only light on in the kitchen was the dim one over the sink. He sat there, silently, glassy-eyed, in between the kitchen table and the wall over. I remember hugging him, dancing around trying to bring a smile and after awhile, succumbing to the allure of banging spoons and pot lids together. He never said a word - it was almost as if he was running through every moment with his dad in his head. In a hazy way, I recall my mom telling me that Grandpa Val had died but I don't really know if I knew what that meant or if she even tried to explain it to me. But I know, very deeply, that this memory represents my first experience of death.
On a recent Saturday morning, Brian's cell phone rang well before anyone in my house was stirring. He ignored it. When the caller tried again, we knew to answer - and learned that Brian's grandfather Clarence (affectionately referred to as Shorty) had passed away. This wasn't a surprise - Shorty had recently celebrated his 90th birthday and was bed-bound with a number of circumstances that invade the body in old age. The following day, we drove out to visit Brian's parents and my mind was with my husband and his father. While I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Shorty in his hey day, I'd certainly heard stories of his humor, his energetic personality and his love of family. As Brian drove down the highway, eyes on the road, he said to me " So.... how are we going to explain this to Cameron? I mean, explain what he's going to see?"
Here I was, worried about the Siebert men and their ponderings of mortality - and it really didn't even occur to me that I needed to explain (or at least be ready to explain) death to an exceptionally inquisitive and sassy three year old. Brian and I realized we had about three days until Cameron would experience his first wake and funeral - and see his daddy as a pall bearer. Truthfully, we never considered leaving him home or leaving him out- we committed to including him in the grieving/good-bye to the Siebert family patriarch.
So... during another car ride later that week, Cameron asked me to tell him a story. Rather awkwardly, I decided to tell the story of Snowflake....
"When mama was a little girl, she really wanted Grandma Gigi to get her a puppy. But instead, for her 10th birthday, Grandma Gigi got mama a white parakeet with sky blue wings and some gray spots. Mama loved Snowflake - the little bird lived in a black cage in mama's room. And mama had to feed Snowflake and give her water and treats and clean the poo out of her cage. But one winter Snowflake became very old and sick and died. Pop Pops had to bury Snowflake in the backyard and mama was very sad." (I neglected to tell him that the ground was frozen, so Snowflake stayed in a plastic bag in the back yard for a few weeks until the ground thawed enough for burial...though at 32, I now wonder if my parents fibbed and actually just threw the corpse away?!)
Anyway..... Obviously Cameron was very interested in this story. After asking to repeat it a BAJILLION times and as I attempted to draw some sort of connection between Snowflake's death and Grandpa Shorty's passing, Cameron crafted his own three-year old conclusions:
"So.. daddy and Grandpa Steve are going to bury Shorty in our backyard? But where will Mowgli play?"
"Is my Mowgli going to die? What brother will I have then?"
"When Grandpa Shorty gets buried in the ground, will he go to heaven? I think he'll grow into a beautiful oak tree. Or maybe some flowers. Or the clouds or a lumpy, bumpy sweet potato (the sweet potato thing was very clearly from our recent, much-coveted library book)
And then, as the two of us drove from the church to the cemetery:
Cam: Will you die?
Me: Yes, one day I'll die.
Cam: And, will my dad die?
Me: Yes, one day, a long time from now, dad will die.
Cam: And will I die?
Me: Yes, sweetheart, one day, so long from now, you will die too. Everything that is alive dies.
Cam: Well. I don't think that little boys die. Just oldy old people. That makes me sad (voice trembling). But when I die, I want to lay down next to you so we can talk about colors (one of his favorite things to do before bed).
As a parent, I think there's all these things in the world that you want to protect your child from. But you can't really protect your child (or really yourself either) from the truths of the universe. And, when it finally comes time to address them, it turns out children are perfectly capable of defining their own reasons, stories and outcomes to make sense of the world that most of us adults are never able to quite make peace with. I always think I have so much to teach him..... But really, I am just at the start of learning all the things he'll be teaching me.
“And that's just it. This is how it is. Always. To pay attention to
things. People. And the good-byes.
You never have the time you think."