“Forever and ever.” She knows the answer already, and she’s almost five.
“And even when I die?”
“Even when you die, at an old, old age.” Every now and then I throw in a “but I’ll die first.”
My kids know the Death talk well. They attended their first funeral together last summer and since then (and the days leading up to it) we’ve had the talk and various versions of it. Then when the cat died, the kids were curious, a little sad, and then very blunt about her dying. “Our cat died” they tell strangers, without tears or sadness in their voices. It’s a thing, you know, this dying.
When you die, you live forever in people’s hearts and memories. They know it well.
Depression, however, I don’t want them to know well. Suicide and its effects neither. Anxiety and PTSD and other mental illnesses, please never touch their beautiful brains. May they be sad but not chronically sad; may they know grief but not debilitating grief; may they know disease that has a cure and pain that has an end.
But these things might infect or affect them, and if these things are genetic and life is still (always) full of suffering when they are older (as it is now and has always been), then they will have to be strong and know how to deal with them. And luckily for them they have parents who are attuned to their personalities and predilections.
Life is an amazing journey filled with wonder. They know that already, and I will always remind them of this.
But my life has been touched by these illnesses, these real life monsters, and it’s something I want them to never suffer from – however, I’m a realist and a cynic, and even though we live in a wide, modern world, shadows fall from the highest skyscrapers and the lowest playgrounds, all around us.
The other night my son was intently watching the news and exclaimed something like, “I’m glad we live here where it’s safe and we don’t have to suffer like those people.” My wife and I were taken aback but at the same time not surprised. The news these days does seem more tragic and unsettling than it did years ago, but if my children feel safe on the couch with us, then hopefully they’re carry that feeling into adulthood, and know what to do when the bloody tint of the news and the rowdy echo of chaos reach into their precious lives.
The world’s on fire, and when it’s not on fire, it’s drowning. And our kids pick up on the suffering out there already.
The best thing we can do is give them the world, make them aware of the injustice, and gently guide them to a place of understanding and then hope that they become loved and loving characters who are more apt to save the world than to do it harm. It’s always a toss-up, but so far my four and six year olds are good guys who can sense the unfair nature of most things, and know when to say sorry and when to help others.
And laughter – they know when to make jokes and see the humor in certain situations. Sometimes nervously, sometimes gallows humor, most times butt and fart jokes. They’re young.
In the past fifteen years I’ve been to a good deal of funerals – it comes with your 20s and early 30s. It should, I guess, but I have no way of gauging these things. I know that a person dies every few seconds, but when it’s a person in your small circle of a circle of a circle of the world, it’s a new movement to a soundtrack you didn’t know was playing in your area.
So I have a habit of buying condolence cards and then losing them, or forgetting to send them, which means that I buy one on the quick while going to a wake or funeral. There’s something about a bowl full of cards from friends and family and even strangers that seems to make things a few percentage points better – that bowl sits there next to the casket, calling you to drop one in and let the family know that their loved one should have existed, and existed longer, and none of us can do anything about it but cry and comfort and carry on.
The fact that there are empty condolence cards that were never sent somewhere in a pile of cards in my office or bedroom says something about my life. I don’t know what it says, but it lingers like a symbol undiscovered. I just found one – an empty card, stuck to the envelope, from years ago, and I try to call up those memories so that the person can live, for a little bit, inside my heart and memories. In fact a good part of my day is remembering the dead, and thinking of those friends and family who no longer walk in the world, and wondering why anyone would want to hurry the funeral of another person or himself. Right now I’m thinking of more than a handful of people I wish were still here, and realizing that I can never do more than just that. But it’s not in a sadness that overcomes, but in a calm, reserved way that is personal, powerful, and reassuring that when I die I will live forever in the memories of someone else.
So I’m going to live forever, as long as those memories live. As are the others.
So, dear children (and dear readers too) may you live forever too – and during this life may you never be sad for too long, may you be selfish about the right things, and may you die of old, old age. May you be loved even when you die.
And may all the wonder and suffering of all the angles and niches in your life hit you at the right time in just the right amount, and may it never, ever, ever be too much.
All original material is copyrighted Jeremy McKeen/Nerdy Dad Shirt Blog 2014.