The Poolside Death Monologue
Today my mother-in-law lost her beloved dog, Abigail. Since my husband’s father died in 2008, Abby has been her closest companion for the last seven years and I know the loss is going to be significant for her, to say the very least.
I told the boys this evening knowing that there would be many, many questions as they have both been experiencing what I can only label as some “existential anxieties” lately. (at the ripe age of six!) Apparently through some cruel form of genetic osmosis I’ve managed to transfer my overly philosophical brain onto my children. (In other words, I was the wildly popular child sitting on the steps of the school contemplating, “who am I? who is God?” while the other kids were playing soccer and exchanging jelly bracelets. But back to this evening, the boys and I were on our way to the pool when the questions began…
Just a few of them…
“Will we see her again?
What will I be when I die?
Will I live in heaven? Where is it? Is it another planet?
I’m afraid I’ll just be gone…
Will I still have legs?
I’m not going, it seems scary…”
They’ve been saying other slightly creepy things lately, such as, “Tell me the saddest die you ever heard”. Which I came to understand meant the saddest story of someone’s death I had ever heard. See what I mean? Creepy.
But you’ve got to love the honesty. Kids have that special terrifying gift of bringing things to the forefront that most of us don’t really want to deal with. Sometimes they will tell you you’re fat, or that your breath stinks, or you have noticeable roots- or worse, they’ll tell your friend or even a total stranger. The PC radar is off and it’s all fair game to them. Which is at times incredibly irritating, and also a little refreshing when you really think about it. What I’ve noticed about children is they can approach their questions surrounding death with an honesty that most of us are unwilling to open ourselves to due to our set of doctrines or dogmas of whichever faith (or lack thereof) we adhere to. A lot of times I think we as a society (I include myself here) sweep our own fears and anxieties regarding death under the rug because A. it’s easier (temporarily) and B. the “not knowing” bit makes us vulnerable, and being vulnerable scares the crap out of us.
But leave it to two almost-first graders to metaphorically pull out the moldy cracker from under the couch just as the guests you were hoping to impress walk into the room. We pull into the parking lot of the pool. It closes in an hour so I try to make my answer brief.
Me: “So… You know how your body is made up of stuff, like your heart and your brain, and your bones.."
Eli: “And your blood!”
Me: “Yup. well there’s something else more important than all those things that you can’t see at all. It wouldn’t even show up on an x-ray.
Eli- “Oh! like when Zi swallowed the nail!” (that’s another story)
Me: “Yes, like that…you can’t see it at all, not like you can see those other parts. It’s called your soul. If you could see it, it would be really bright and shiny and that’s actually the REAL you. It’s more real than anything else! It’s not worried about toys in heaven or having feet. It doesn’t need any of those things, and that part of you is always safe, and that part of mommy is always safe, and that part of ALL the other people you know and love, that part of them, that most special part of them is always safe…. So does that make sense?
I turn around to face them after parking. There’s a glassy look in their eyes and I can’t tell if they’re feeling all the excitement that I’m feeling from this terrible but heartfelt monologue I’ve given or if they’re totally tuned out…
Eli smiles a little,
“No but mommy can we go just go swimming now and you can tell me that soul thing again later?”
Okay, clearly the later. Phew. At least I don’t have to explain that explanation, then things could get really fuzzy, as if they’re not already.
“Yes! Swimming, let’s go swimming!”
For some reason I’m noticing more at the pool tonight. The water and sun, the giddiness over a backwards flip, I’m feeling it all more. The boys are here. I’m here. How lucky are we to have this time, however brief, to spend with the ones we love? That’s the one weird little gift that death always seems to hold out for us in those moments of sorrow or questioning. Somewhat ironically, allowing ourselves to ask these questions or sit with our own “not knowing”, however uncomfortable, seems to give us a deeper gratitude for this living business.
So what will I tell them with the next barrage of questions? I hope I can tell them that I get scared sometimes too, and that’s okay. It means we’re opening ourselves up to the unknown and in turn allowing for life’s full expression to take place, at least that’s the way I see it. I don’t have all the answers. And the more I live, I realize, I really don’t want all the answers, not like I used to. Like Rilke says in letters to a young poet, “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.” And that’s what I want most for the boys. To live out the big, sometimes scary questions themselves and find the answer that lies in that shiny little bit of them, the part that won’t show up on an X-ray. And if not, at least there's the swimming;)
An incredibly honest, beautiful poem ….
BY MAY SWENSON
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?