Both Dread AND Joy
As it turns out I knew this deep in my baby bones at a very early age: we are specks in the universe here for a short time and then we die.
You know how people ask you “what’s your very first memory?” My family has long heard me tell this first memory I have:
I am sitting on the red carpet in our living room in a ray of sunshine coming in the window. I’m teeny. I mean, pre-language teeny…I see specks of dust floating in the sun ray that is warming my little body there on the floor. I feel a sense of beauty and awe and existential dread. In some 3-year old way I swear I was contemplating “what am I? I’m the same as these specks in the sunlight…”
I’ve been trying to out-run or forget the realization that we’re all going to die since I was 3. I am 53 now and this morning I can’t run anymore. It’s not just the arthritis in my knees, it’s that I don’t want to run from death, I want to turn and face it. This is IT.
Do I have a day, months or years left on this sweet planet? However long or short is left for me and those I am closest to, it’s typical for me to perceive that as awe-inspiringly finite and amazing and alarming/heart breaking all at the same time.
Why do I dwell on this subject now? Somehow it’s both writing and sharing that move me forward in my own development, personally. So any reader who makes it to the end of my love letter here, thank you for being a partner in my human development. Truly: thanks! May I be a partner in yours.
Why would you read this? Maybe you too are looking for applied philosophical conversation about life and death. Maybe you had an experience like mine when you were teeny too. For now, here’s a little story that braids three strands together:
1) What I said to myself during the total eclipse of the sun last summer;
2) What my dad told me about what happens when we die; and
3) What I said to my 4-year old son when he asked me the same question.
There is dread and joy in all of it.
Total Eclipse of the Sun
It was August 21, 2017. We had just put our youngest daughter on the plane headed for her first year of college. My husband and I hopped in our car to go meet up with family and friends near Ketchum Idaho where the eclipse would be total. While we were all just playing around in the sun up there before the eclipse my husband took this story’s photo of me. Joy and excitement ruled my thoughts at that point in the day.
During a total eclipse you cannot miss the fact that it gets cold, dark and quiet. Fast. Any herd of humans you might be with at the moment are uncharacteristically still. The bugs and birds: ditto. My feeling at that time: “oh hello death, aren’t you a big bummer when you show up?”
Even though it was only 3 minutes in the dark, it felt long, timeless. We all stood there together, quiet as specks. Then afterward we talked together about generations who came before us who did frequent, faithful and sometimes lavish thanking of the sun for food, for all of life. I can see why they made a big deal about it. It’s quite obvious the crops wouldn’t grow without the sun. And humans need food, right? Right.
Even the Sun Will Die…Gawd, Really?!
One unwelcome thought that came to mind during just the few minutes of cold, dark, quiet, was a recollection of listening to a Eckhart Tolle talk called: “Even the Sun Will Die.” My mom gave me his CD years ago to listen to on a long drive I had coming up for work. I found it shockingly matter-of-fact and sort of relief all at once to hear him talking about how nothing is permanent. I do recommend it — especially if you find yourself in occasional or frequent sweaty denial of death.
So I had a whole mind, body, spirit experience of the eclipse. On the “thoughts” side, my internal talk with myself went something like this as I zoomed out into geologic time: “okay, our sun is a star and eventually stars die…death of the sun means death of our planet..Wait. It’s not IF our sun dies. It’s WHEN…” Damn I love our sun. Oh my! I love this planet. Oh jeez! Even our sun is of the nature to grow old and die…
Face it. Feel it. Turn around and give it a good, long look. We might as well accept this. Resistance is futile.
Driving a Montana Road With Dad
When I was a little girl driving down some Montana road with my dad in his truck I asked him the inevitable, “what happens when we die” question. He gave me his earthy answer that “we just return to the soil.”
I still recall feeling dread about that. He continued to just drive the road, relaxed and apparently having fun offering me extensive detail on the amazing process of decomposition, how the bugs and worms that live in the soil help out and isn’t that neat and…
I recall my heart sank. I also recall some hints of joy in him, sort of glee in telling his daughter (me!) about the circle of life. I think he chuckled a little at how I resisted his atheist response. I didn’t want it to be all about science and logic. Where was the reassurance? Or how about a little mystery? Tell me a different story dad! He used to make up a huge variation of endings to the Three Little Pigs and make me laugh, but now I wanted a different story about what happens when we die.
What I appreciate most now about what he told me is that he showed me that he was just fine with the whole process and inevitability of life and death. I see now that he gave me a little seed of confidence that way. A seed of confidence I might have failed — I’m not sure — to pass along to my own kiddos many years later. I guess my dad trusted me to grapple with realities of life and death on my own, in my own time. So now I must trust the same in my kids who are now adults and frankly, neither one seems bothered by this specific kind of angst.
It has taken a long time to become more aware of this new feeling in me, this calmer, more accepting knowledge:
keeping death in our sights more frequently makes life even sweeter.
Is that true for you in your experience so far?
Something small yet significant shifted in me up on that ridge. I felt some extra vastness. Vastness that helped me get just a little more okay with what IS. Bit by bit, my anxious, avoidant dread is taking a back seat to acceptance of what just is. Death is certain. And all that just has to be okay.
The eclipse was a memorable experience. I got to be there, together with family and friends and some nice strangers affirming some fundamental things. We are alive now and we have a sun and a planet that sustains us. We’ve got lives to live! Wahoo! And we will die. Boo! So, in that both/and way of holding — and moving between — two truths at a time, it took my five decades of experience to integrate these polar opposites of wahoo and boo.
Photo below: our friend Chris made a “scientific eclipse viewing box” because he was geeking out. He frequently geeks out about science.
Life is Brief, Death is Certain. Face That.
My kids tease me about being squeamish about death. I am. Squeamish. At the same time I dwell here and wonder, jeez, who is NOT keeping death in mind quite often? If others are not remembering how finite this life gig is, I am so curious: what the hell are you pondering? May I have an extra helping of whatever that is please?
Yet it does feels good to turn and face death. Look at that. Is that intense curiosity I’m feeling or crazed fear? Again, it’s both.
A few winters ago I read Atul Gawande’s book On Being Mortal in two sittings after a local doctor prescribed it to our neighbor who was about to die. I couldn’t put it down it was so compelling. As an aside, it was pretty cool to hear a doc give prescription to a guy he knew was a big reader, knowing it would help Dave deeply consider if more surgery made sense for him. Dave read it too and showed up at our door saying, “everyone on the planet over 30 should read this book right away.” I don’t know why he chose age 30…
Last fall I listened to Krista Tippet interviewing Alain de Botton on The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships (On Being, Feb. 9, 2017). De Botton said something about how most parents and communities keep something really important from kids:
“You know,” he said, “I’m talking about the fact that human life is overall, and quite often, very lonely and brief.”
Journal Entry to Oscar, Age 4
In January 1999, my 4-year old son Oscar was bereft for a few weeks after a coyote killed a chicken he had bonded with and named Little Chick.
Our friend Mike gave Oscar the hard news: Little Chick was dead, supper for the coyote. Grieving the passing of Little Chick made Oscar start taking notice of life and death in some new ways. Just a few days after that I made this entry in the journal I where I kept serial notes, love letters really, to my kids while they were growing up. This entry was short:
Dear O, you saw a photo in our newspaper tonight, front page, above the fold: human bodies stacked up in the back of a truck in Columbia.
“Are they dead?” you asked with visible worry and a look of already knowing.
“Yes, it’s sad,” I said, “There was a big earthquake, the earth shook, buildings fell down and they died,”
I was aiming for a factual tone like my dad had offered me when I was about your age, but you surely heard my voice laced with unhelpful dread. Where would this conversation go? We’ve already been grieving Little Chick for weeks and now we grieve for dead people, our species, fellow humans. This is getting harder…
“Darn it!” you shouted, bursting into immediate tears, “I just HATE it when people die!”
“Does everyone die?” you asked, crumpling even further into despair.
“Wait!” you sat up straighter with a look of desperation on your face, “is Nate gonna die?!” Then even straighter, “Wait! are WE gonna die?”
Besides looking at our globe together to find Columbia, we had no satisfying answers for you tonight O. I was utterly unprepared for our first conversation about death when Little Chick kicked the can, and even more unprepared tonight. In fact, I cried and needed my mommy too.
Love you to the moon and sun and back a thousand million times, mom
How to Broach Death With Kids
With the headline for this essay I vamped on something I saw years ago in the The Onion, a sometimes-hilarious fake news outlet piece that explained the best way to explain death to kids might go like this:
“Buy a goldfish. Wait.”
Or how about the Simpsons cartoon where Homer is told to “live each day like it’s his last.” Of course, instead of being inspired to totally engage in life, Homer runs off shrieking,
“No! I’m too young to die!”
Facing the Reality of Mortality
Writing today is helping me get a bit more comfortable with being chronically uncomfortable about death. Are you present with life while you keep death in your sights at the same time? If so, what’s your secret Madge? I want to know!
Apparently it’s a lifelong practice: facing the reality of mortality. If you have kids in your life, are you finding your own ways to let them in on the practice of how we live fully while also knowing that death is certain?
We have so many choices. Go forth and broach it! Mary Oliver writes:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Oh come ON! Like Homer, I’m too young to die!
I’m so curious now too, what will you, or did you, tell your kids? What did your parents tell you about life and death? How do you coach yourself now about life and death? Write me at [email protected]
Thank you for reading this second installment drawn from the Serial Love Letters I wrote to my kids from the months I was first pregnant to now.