Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everything dies, baby

When I die, I'll be cremated, hopefully after donating any organs where they're needed.

When I die, my collection of books (especially the fancy Harry Potter ones) will go to my son. They will be read and re-read, and if they fall apart, taped together and read again, and if that falls apart, recorded in my son's voice as special edition audio books.

When I die, it will be the year 2166, at the earliest.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled in the mountains, in a canyon, at my father's commemorative field, or maybe at the duck park, by the good playground with the giant yellow slide.

Aside from the fact that I would like to be an organ donor and be cremated, these are all edicts by my son, dispensed with what can be off-putting regularity and at the weirdest of times.

Like yesterday during our walk.

Me: "David, come on. We're taking this path."

Son: "Mom, when you die..."

Me: (With uncomfortable sidelong glance at a passerby.) "Not now, bud. Let's go. It's getting dark."

Son: "But Mom -- and it's going to be a while before you die, but..."

Me: (More apologetic glances.) "Why don't you come over here and tell me what you need to tell me?"

Son: "MOM! I'm saying, WHEN YOU DIE..."

Passerby: "..." (Emanates What-is-WRONG-with-these-two vibes; gives us very wide berth.)

To be fair, he didn't see the passerby (because he was playing a rousing game of I'm Not Following You Until You Count to Three in a Threatening Voice, and therefore was facing the other way). Ordinarily my son saves topics like death, hurt feelings, boobs and penises for tender family moments.

Just engaging in frank death talk is apparently weird, at least according to most people. That was part of my reason for the Come-here-and-then-tell-me approach. I've had matter-of-fact discussions about mortality before, but anyone who doesn't know my son and me and overhears it tends to behave as though I'm forcing the kid to watch the dead-baby-on-ceiling scene from Trainspotting while the creepy girl from The Ring crawls out of the picture-in-picture and I caper next to him dressed as Pennywise. You don't talk about death, at least not directly. Even while talking about death, you don't talk about death. Death is passing on. It's someone you've lost. It's going to sleep and not waking up. Death is about coping, life, religion, just about anything except death.

Here's the thing: My family is freakishly frank. We're considerate -- in fact, I think my siblings and I were raised with a higher-than-average mandate to be considerate and to observe proper conventions of civil conversation. However, we're blunt. Sex? Penis goes into vagina. Babies may result. Race? Yes; that guy is black. Big whoop. Divorce? Heads up: divorce coming. Puberty? Crazy shit's going to happen to your body. You'll be happier if you learn to use tampons.

There was no verboten topic growing up. I was an adult before I heard the one about not discussing politics or religion at the dinner table. Whatever were you supposed to shout about? We said what the heck we meant to say. Conversational pussyfooting was just not done.

My family wasn't flippant. We discussed the intricacies of sex, race, divorce, puberty, everything. Heaven knows, we discussed the hell out of them. My point is, it was always centered on a frank, honest addressing of the issue.

I've remained exactly the same, and my son picked up on it as soon as he could string two words together. Kids really have to be taught out of bluntness, anyway. We just skipped that lesson. Hence, the out-of-the-blue conversations about biracial families, cat nuts, and death.

(My husband, whose family was slightly less forthcoming with information, gets all shifty and lobs EVERY SINGLE talk my way. Cut him some slack, though -- he did conduct a very nice Why-we-don't-grab-our-crotches talk this week, and that was while being scaled by the cat, all with an insulin syringe hanging from his arm. I did my part by sitting in the next room snickering.)

Death really is about coping and commemorating the life that just ended, but only once you address the fact that someone or something has died. It's actually because you first address the bare fact of it that you can then cope and remember and pay respects.

Which is all very nice, except when someone close to you does die, you're not always all about being brutally frank and blunt. (Well, I still am. But you're not likely to be. I'm not normal.)

Why not let him explore mortality in a safe and non-scary way?

So sorry, lady at the park. I've allowed him to fixate on death -- my death -- when he feels the need. It's creepy, sure. Embarrassing, sometimes. But he's figured out more than most people I know.

He has discussed, analyzed, and felt, really felt, all the deaths he's experienced in his short life, be they pets, my grandmother, or the miscarriage. He's even analyzed my father's death (who died seven years before he was born), and the impact his grandfather might have had (or still can have) on his own life. He's decided, for now, that he believes in Heaven, but not Hell. He's not sure what he means by Heaven. He's outraged by the fact that some deaths are in the news for weeks and weeks, but you never hear about other ones. He figures he's probably not correct about all of it, but he's more worried about life anyway, he says. He knows life is precious.

And while bellowing WHEN YOU DIE to one's mother isn't necessarily normal, you know what else he did? When a girl he knew lost a grandparent, he said, quite simply, "Sorry your grandma died," and left it at that. No one else acknowledged it. Maybe they thought they were being nice.

But she instantly became his friend.


Brian said... Best Blogger Tips

I can't tell you ho helpful I find these parenting posts. My daughter is just over 4 and my son is almost 2, so I haven't had most of these talks with them yet. But it feels good to see an example of a parent speaking to her child lovingly while also treating them like a thoughtful human being.
I remember your ms reading at Goucher made me cry. More than one blog post has, too. Thanks for sharing this beautiful writing that is also enlightening for parents.

Kim Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Thank you so much, Brian. I'm kind of sad sometimes that my son's out of the 2s and 4s -- it seems like I blinked and he was 8 -- but we have some of the best conversations now. It's amazing, watching them turn into whole, individual, thoughtful persons.

Of course yesterday evening my son and his friend, also very mature and insightful for his age, reveled in accidentally-on-purpose talking about their nuts as loudly as possible, so they do bring you down to Earth as well.

Ana said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Kim. :) Thanks for visiting my blog and for your nice comments! It's nice to 'meet' you also. Love your photos on flickr! Great talent!

Maggie May said... Best Blogger Tips

That is exactly how my family is. Frank as beans :)

Kim Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks, Ana!

Maggie, yes. Frank as beans would be a good way to put it. Unfortunately, my husband was raised slightly differently. Suffice it to say that when I told him "I don't want to cuddle; I want to sleep!" his first thought was not to appreciate my honesty.

Momo Fali said... Best Blogger Tips

Good for you. I am the same way with my kids. We talk openly about everything. I wish my parents has been that way with me.

gonzomama said... Best Blogger Tips

i loved reading this post. i didn't grow up in a very forthcoming family (they still aren't) and i want to be very open and honest with my littles ones. my oldest is 3.5 and he asks questions about death too. i answer them as honestly and as simply as i can. if he wants to go further i let him. if not, the discussion is dropped.

and it's nice knowing my boy isn't the only one with these curiosities.

Kim Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks, Momo and gonzomama. Yeah; I'm starting to notice more and more people being open with their kids, which I think is great. However, I still think that my very open and discussion-heavy upbringing left me with a distinct advantage. There's something freeing and wonderful about being able to be that frank. My son gives me an excuse to be unapologetically honest.

ck said... Best Blogger Tips

"So sorry, lady at the park. I've allowed him to fixate on death -- my death -- when he feels the need."

Reading this post was like receiving validation for being frank. A lot of people I know shy away from what they tell their children, and while I don't go out of my way to start "adult" conversations, I encourage open discourse on any topic they bring up. It's encouraging to know other people do the same.

SciFi Dad said... Best Blogger Tips

I try to be as candid as possible with my daughter, within the boundaries of her understanding (in other words I'm not telling her the minutae of dealing with death so much as the general outline -- she is only five after all) but sometimes it's difficult because she is prone to sharing, and not every parent of a Kindergartener is as open as we try to be.