Death, Dying, Love and the Littlest Lives

“Mama, I won’t let you die. Not until you’re Big Old like great grammie is,” my son told me about a month ago. He’s at an age where he’s trying to wrap his head around such big thoughts as ‘next week’ and ‘dead’. with equal devotion to the seriousness and bigness of the subjects. He can’t quite understand why dead = gone, but he knows he doesn’t get to see his great grandfather any more, not since he got dead (a year and a half ago, now). I’ve tried to soften the blow without sweeping this very basic fact of life under the rug, or turning it into some sort of fairy tale ending. I’m having a hard enough time explaining angels, fairies, Santa Claus, God and marriage.

“I have a diamond in my heart, mama, and when it sparkles it talks to God, and when I die I get to sparkle,” he told me at the bus stop one afternoon.

“When you’re dead, you’re gone and you don’t get to come back anymore but we can talk to dead people with our hearts,” was another of his pearls of wisdom.

Death can be mercifully quick, or painfully slow. My son is getting a good look at the slow death of cancer: my aunt is dying, and has been alternately fighting this disease and dying from it for well over a year, now. My mother and my cousin have alternated time spent taking care of this creative, solitary woman, and after a year, it has taken a toll on the family fabric in ways I don’t know we’ll ever be able to mend. But their extraordinary efforts have allowed this woman to remain in the comfort of her own home, and have probably kept her alive longer than the impersonal care of nursing home or hospital would have been able to do. My aunt is leaving us, and I have begun to think that she will not leave behind a withered body, but will simply wear thinner and thinner against this life until one day, we’ll discover that she has become transparent and disappeared.

My son loves his grand aunts, and this one most of all, because we see her so often. He has never commented on her wasting body, or her luminous eyes, or her frail hands. He laughs with delight when he sees her, clambers up on her bed to play a game of Go Fish and tell her all about his latest adventures. He’s not even four yet. He doesn’t see the world through anyone’s eyes but his own, and everything is so new and bright, he takes things like death and dying in stride.

My mother was on her way down to visit this past Monday, before she jets off for a desperately needed vacation. The boy and I had had a rough night; we needed our Grammie mom. I called my mother to ask her if we could join her on her trip to see her sister. She hemmed. She thought perhaps I could come and we’d leave Nico in school. I gently reminded her that the boy loves his aunt and would like to see her, too, and would definitely like to see his grammie before she goes away for a few weeks. “But she’s so…” my mother began, helpless to finish the sentence. I know what she is. She’s frail, she’s skin and bones, she’s luminous eyes in a parchment face. “I’ll leave it up to you,” my mother said with a sigh.

I brought my son to see his aunt, perhaps for the last time. He wasn’t allowed to climb up onto her bed anymore (”remember, buddy, she’s a fragile pedestrian now”), and the games of Old Maid are long gone–she can’t follow the cards well enough anymore. The tumor in her brain is pressing on things, now, making her fade in and out of reality. But he still told her about what he was up to, his dreams of being an engineer astronaut so he can build rockets in space, how Christian was his friend now, “And I’ll never give up on him!” he declared. When he went into the living room to play, she asked to keep her door open, so she could hear him laughing and catch a glimpse of him as he moved about her home, a boy on a mission of delight.

He doesn’t see what cancer has done to his grand-aunt. He loves her, and when he looks at her, he sees her with love. He’s not frightened, because there’s nothing to be scared of. If anything, seeing his aunt endure with beauty and dignity such an ugly, undignified end, will only serve to give him peace and comfort when death next comes to our lives. She cannot be disturbing to him, because all he sees is the lady who loves him. I won’t protect him from this, I won’t shelter and shield him from this. Death is the tails side of the coin of life. He knows she is Big Sick like great grandpa was Big Old. He knows it’s the cigarettes she smoked that are going to make her die. He knows she will be with great grandpa someday, and that we won’t be able to see her or talk to her anymore.

But he knows she will always be there, alive in his heart, and that he’ll always be able to talk to her there.

cancer, children, death, dying, ethics, explaining death, family, Growing up, Mothering, Personal, toddler

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