Our family lost a beloved member this week – Ted’s only cousin’s husband. He was in his early forties, a stay-at-home dad, and a caregiver to his grandma-in-law. He was funny, interesting, a great storyteller, into all the wonderful geeky stuff that I’m into (he was, for example, the only person in the family with whom I often had serious discussions about Buffy and Firefly); he was wildly in love with his kids and his wife, a dedicated family man, fun at parties…. and then, in a flash, he was gone.
And we miss him.
And so I’ve had several discussions with the kids about death and dying, about what happens to us when we die, and about the fragility and preciousness of the fact of our breathing and the fact of our living. Particularly Leo, who was most fond of our cousin’s jokes, who felt the strongest connection to him, and therefore most keenly feels his loss.
Each moment is a miracle, I told them. Though I didn’t entirely believe it.
Death is a part of life; life is precious because it is brief. Again, my words felt hollow and without meaning. I hoped the kids didn’t notice.
Last night, I woke up at about midnight to find Leo standing next to my bed. He had his hand resting on my forehead.
“What are you doing up?” I asked.
“You put on the flower blanket,” Leo said, ignoring the question. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “What are you doing up?”
“I was just checking on you,” he said.
I told him I was fine, and I kissed him, gave him a glass of water and tucked him into bed.
At two a.m., he was back, his hand on my forehead.
“Hey,” I said sleepily.
“I’m just checking on you,” he said again.
“Well, I’m fine,” I said. “But I’m a bit sleepy.” And I walked him back to his bed and tucked him in.
Then at four thirty, I was suddenly pummeled by a riot of arms and legs, as Leo scrambled over my body and wedged himself between his dad and I. “I though you might be lonely,” he said.
“How can I ever be lonely with such a nice family,” I yawned as I carried him back to bed.
Then, this morning, after breakfast, he went outside and gathered leaves. Red leaves, brown leaves. Leaves the color of mustard, and the color of gold, and the color of roses. He put them in the sink, pushed in the plug and turned on the tap.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“They lost their water,” Leo said. “So I’m putting their water back in and then they’ll be green again.”
“Honey, that’s not how it works,” I said, turning off the faucet. “They will never be green. We’ll rake them into the garden beds, and they will become less leaf-like and more dirt-like. Then they will become food for the flowers and the hostas and the vegetables. But they won’t be leaves again. In the spring, the trees will turn gold, then pale green, then the buds will burst open, and the world will be filled with leaves. Leaves as far as you can see. And everything will be green.”
“So,” he said, thinking. “The leaves become flowers?”
“Sort of. Everything is recycled. Everything becomes everything.”
“So.” He paused for several breaths. “Is Kurby a flower? Or is he everything?”
I picked him up. “Baby,” I said. “Every atom in your body was once in a star. Did you know that? And that star formed, and burned, and exploded into dust, and that dust spun, and collected and congealed into planets and our sun and your body and every blessed thing on this whole beautiful earth. When we die, our atoms become flowers and dirt and leaves and wind and worms and bunny rabbits and fire and stars. And we become memory and thought and song and stories and spirit and Word and children of God. I don’t know where we go, honey. But I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Will I know it?” Leo said. He wound his arms around my neck and hung on tight.
“Yes, darling,” I said. “I do believe you will.”