Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. ~ Katherine Mansfield

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ashes to dust, dirt to trees

I crossed a parenting milestone this week when Jude, 4 years old and urged on by the deaths of five of our chicks and my grandpa last fall, asked me if everyone dies.

This is one of those moments when the world stops and you know your answer will have lasting effect. I am about to shape my child's first impression of death.

"Yes buddy," I say, "everyone dies."

His face crumples as he says in a tiny voice, "Oh no, even me?"

My heart shatters. I want to say, "No, no not you. Never you. By the time you get old they'll find a cure for death and you and me and Daddy and Aidan and your Granny and Grandpa and all of your family will be together always." I want to cure death so that it doesn't keep my son up at night. I want to avoid the upcoming trips in the car, when he is at his most open, during which he'll ask if his best friend Sammy will die. As endearing as it is I don't want to be present when he asks if Barack Obama will die and then, upon my answer, sobs out the words, "But he's my favorite president!"

This is when other parents are able to turn to Heaven and let their children know that if they are good, and go to church and say their prayers, then after they die a loving God will welcome them to Paradise and they'll all live happily ever after, amen. I want Heaven to be real now, just as I wanted it to be real at my grandpa's funeral when family members spoke of my grandparents being reunited in Heaven and dancing together for eternity. I want to be able to tell my child this story too. I want to believe.

But I don't. The best I can do is save my son from the devastation of growing up and thinking that I lied to him in this moment when he needed me most. I step away from the temptation of the story that I know will stop his crying and I carefully revisit the narrative that began a few days prior with the death of our first chick.

When we die, our bodies turn to dust. This dust then turns into dirt, and the dirt becomes a tree. Or grass. Our bodies help new things grow. He asks if my grandpa has turned into a fruit tree and I feel no qualms with skipping over the blasphemy of caskets and embalming and tell him yes, Grandpa Cyril is a fruit tree. Probably apple. For the moment this calms him, and he sleeps.

The conversation does not end here, and I am certain we'll be revisiting the topic for a while. In classic Jude fashion, he has declared the Circle of Life dumb. But I feel my shoulders release just a fraction when he tells me that even though he hates dying, he loves that he will become a tree. I love it to. I realize that talking through death with Jude, enlightening him on this grander scheme of decay and renewal, makes me more comfortable with the idea as well.

I promise Jude that as he gets used to the idea of dying it won't seem so scary and he won't think about it as much. I also promise that I'll do my best, years and years and years from now, to make sure that my tree is planted next to his tree and that our leaves will always be touching. It's a picture that we both need to hold on to.

Some people think that Atheists don't believe in anything. This is untrue. I believe in easing my son's pain while still telling him the truth. I believe in the Circle of Life, as dumb as it may be. I believe that death seems far less terrible when our bodies give way to new growth. I believe in cremation and in taking these fertile ashes somewhere special to scatter, or bury, and thereby create hallowed ground through regeneration. I believe that my children can grow up to view death as a natural progression of life, to cherish the time that we are together, and not to fear our eventual demise. I find comfort in these beliefs, and I hope that Jude will too.


Primaria Cielo said...

Amazing. Love this.

Primaria Cielo said...

Ha its Steph Shawn btw I have too many accounts.

troy said...

Man I love reading your posts, thank you for sharing that moment.

Erika Levy said...

This is beautiful and touching. Having just learned of my father having a rare form of cancer, death has been on my mind the last few days... Now I'm wondering what kind of tree he would be. Maybe a lemon tree? What would I be? Maybe Cherry Blossom; Or maybe I'd be a Douglas Fir in the deep, wet woods with a thick sheet of moss covering my bark.

Rebekah Combs said...

This is one of the most gorgeous bits of writing I've ever read. Wowzers. I do remember those tough questions. I love the trees next to each other with the leaves touching. Love, love, love. Beautiful work.

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