The other day, Dylan said to me, “Six years ago I was dead.” We were at the gas station. I was pumping gas, and Dylan and Riley were hanging out the window.
I replied, “No, you weren’t dead. You just weren’t born yet.”
Then he said, “I was dead when I was in your belly.”
I replied, “No, you weren’t. You were growing inside of me.”
Then he said, “Look, I’m dead,” and his body went limp.
Then Riley said, “Look, I’m dead, too,” and he went limp next to his brother.
“Neither of you are dead,” I said.
Then Dylan said, “Two years ago I was dead and now I’m back.”
After that zinger, I changed the subject.
The ease with which my kids talk about, think about, and imitate death astounds me. Equally surprising is the ease with which I talk about it with them. Dylan has, on many occasions, asked me about death (thankfully he’s only had to mourn a fish so far), and I’ve had some pretty darn good answers (if I do say so myself). The problem is that underneath my super cool, no big deal this-is-what-happens-when-you-die exterior, I’m a hot, flaming mess.
You see, death is one thing. Dying is another. I don’t even like it when my boys go to birthday parties without me. How am I supposed to die? How am I supposed to be gone? Forever? Holy crap.
I don’t know what happens after we die. (Maybe Dylan was dead before he was born.) Even more unsettling is that, if I’m being totally honest, the theory I consider to be the most likely is that nothing happens, which doesn’t leave me much to hang a hat on.
So, how exactly does one prepare for the end? For nothingness? And as long as I’m on the subject, what’s my purpose and why am I here?
Wait. I’m sorry. Do you think I have answers to these questions? Ha! If I contemplate for just a few seconds the notion that the earth is a speck of dust in an infinite universe, my chest tightens and I can’t catch my breath.
I don’t like being out of control, which is why general anesthesia is so hard for me and why life’s lemons propel me to clean out closets and organize cabinets (or at least go shopping for these projects at the Container Store). Every aspect of death – from how to when to where to why – is a crapshoot, so I can’t embrace it any more than I can Dylan going to sleepaway camp or – gulp – driving a car.
I’ve lost my fair share of loved ones. Their lives and deaths have not only given purpose to mine, but also amplified theirs. I cherish the memories I have of them, the perspective they impart, the lessons they pass on, and the endless wisdom they share, even in death. Whether I know it or not, my children and loved ones will have the same experience after I’m gone, which is a beautiful proposition, but it’s the “whether or not I know it” part with which I struggle.
I don’t believe in anything enough to surrender to it. After 9/11, I desperately wanted to believe in something to make sense of why I was alive and others were dead, and I felt something eerily similar after my molar pregnancy. In the end, though, these tragedies didn’t give me faith; rather they made me keenly aware of what I don’t believe. I don’t believe in fate, I don’t believe in a plan, and I don’t believe things happen for a reason, all of which make dying a tricky proposition.
I certainly hope that by the time I’m an old lady – assuming I have the great fortune of growing old – I’ll have adopted a belief in something other than nothing or become exhausted enough with life to accept what does or doesn’t happen next. In the meantime, I’ll obsess over the wrinkles developing in my cleavage (true story) and how my hands are starting to look like my mom’s (sorry mom), and I’ll live my life how I want my children to live theirs and how I want their children to live theirs and how I want their children’s children to live theirs. Chest tightening. Can’t catch breath. And when overwhelming thoughts of death, nothingness, infinity, and my children’s children’s children take hold, I’ll do what I did after Dylan said, “Six years ago I was dead.” I’ll change the subject. Or, I’ll go to the Container Store. (Ahh.)