“So we will see him get buried?”
“Why do people get buried when they die?”
“Will he be in a coffin?”
“What’s a coffin?”
My two sons and I are driving to my uncle’s wake. Finally past the traffic, we speed along the freeway, their questions come as fast as the passing trees. My husband is in California. He’s just started a new job. We will be moving across the country in a couple of weeks.
My kids have never been to a funeral and I’m trying to prepare them as best I can. Much to their disappointment, I tell them we won’t actually see him get buried but yes, he’ll be in a coffin. My answers are not enough. They want to know specifics. Who digs the hole? What if he wakes up? Can the box be made of Legos if you want? How do they get the box into the hole? How deep is it? There is no emotion in these questions; no dancing around tactfulness, just pure six and seven year old curiosity.
The ride has been long. They can read how many minutes before we arrive on the GPS which keeps adjusting for traffic and adding minutes. Still they ask, “how much longer?” Time is a mirage.
“How did Uncle Chip die?”
I tell them he was sick. They have follow up questions. I tell them he had a disease but no, it’s not one kids can get. I tell them he was 75 and I reaffirm that I am (only) 42. They remember that their grandparents are 72 and 73 and I reaffirm that neither nana nor papa have a disease. After several minutes of silence, my six year old asks, “Do you only die when you are old?”
I don’t want to scare him but I don’t want to lie. I say some people die when they are younger and some people die when they are older. “Some people live all the way to 100, like GG.” My grandmother is the only other person they knew who has died. We were in Singapore and unable to come home for her services. The distance made her death conceptual. Like time, they understand 60 minutes is an hour but the equation is meaningless sitting on a crowded turnpike.
My oldest, who I thought was sleeping, chimes in, “you can die when you’re young. We could get in a car accident and die. That’s why we always have to wear our seatbelts.”
Is it better to have a lengthy illness and know you are going to die? Or buckle yourself into your car one not knowing you’re never going to unbuckle? If you knew your time was limited, would a day feel like less than 24 hours? Is it better to spend your years solidly rooted or flying to distant lands? My own questions have been passing quickly too.
A few days earlier, N woke up on the last day of kindergarten in tears. When I asked why he was crying, he choked out, “because kindergarten is over.” I reminded him that summer has started and we’re going to get to know new friends at a new school. We talked some more before he sat up and conceded, “well, I am happy for summer.”
At breakfast, he asked H, “who do you think you will have as a teacher next year?”
“I don’t know,” H says without looking up, “we don’t know who teaches third grade at our new school. Remember?” The nineteen months between them stretched taute.
“Oh yeah,” N took a bite of his cereal. “It’s a weird day because I feel happy and sad.”
Later that day, I scrolled through my Facebook feed to a seemingly endless loop of first and last day photos. I can’t believe how they’ve grown! Where did grade X go? Slow down time. The photo captions and comments are variations of a familiar theme: parenthood is one useless attempt to manipulate time. Fast forward through sleepless nights and illness; rewind to the first coos and steps and preschool; pause at all the extraordinary-in-the-mundane moments in between. Impossible.
As a kid, I remember taking photos on the first day of school. I remember carefully picking out my first day outfit then being ushered outside with my siblings. In the majority of them I am squinting fiercely from the sun. But rarely do I remember standing awkwardly with my siblings in front of the zinnias for a last day picture. Maybe because it was a different time or maybe because my mother was more likely to mourn a year passed then to look ahead to a new year on the horizon. Regardless, memories of the fleeting June days of my childhood are not neatly juxtaposed with the 180 days prior. Does this make it easier to accept the passage of time? Did not marking time endlessly with photos make it seems to go slower, or faster? Why does time seem to pass more quickly as you grow? It’s as if the longer you circle the sun the faster you spin.
“PT Barnum has a big stone that sits on the ground above where he’s buried. I saw it on my class trip. Will we see something like that today?” We are driving in the funeral procession to the church for my Uncle’s mass. I tell my boys there is just a mass, no burial.
They are quiet for 30 seconds, then N asks if he will get to see PT Barnum’s grave when he is in second grade and goes on “the field trip.” I remind him he will be at a different school so there will be different field trips. “Oh, yeah.” I’m still not sure he really understands but before I can think what to say next, he asks, “Do all dead people go to heaven? What is it like?”
Their questions are both annoying and calming.
I’ve never taken my children to Church. What they’ve pieced together about God and heaven and Jesus has been quilted together from friends, my parents and presumably, You Tube. I spent countless hours of my youth going to Church — sitting still, standing, reciting words, kneeling, singing, believing everything would be ok if I followed along and did as was done. The stained glass windows with sad images reflected the kaleidoscopic confusion of my thoughts.
My mother used to explain heaven as a big party, with all the friends and relatives who have died. She’d say it was the most perfect place. I’d look to the sky, imagining crowds of people sitting on soft cloud pillows, chatting with cake and ice cream. Even as a young girl, this explanation didn’t seem right.
“I don’t know what heaven is like,” I say. I know this not a sufficient answer but I steer the conversation by reminding them again that Church is important to their Nana and Papa and we must be respectful. As we pull into the Church to say goodbye to my uncle, I try to clarify by telling my kids that no one has ever come back from heaven so I can’t tell them what it is really like. I tell them some people believe it is a very special place where everyone is happy. “So, it’s like a big party,” N says ending the conversation. My mother has already talked to him.
We sit in a pew a few seats behind my aunt and cousins and my Catholic muscle memory kicks in. I try to remember the last time I sat through a mass. Has it been 10 years? My faith in institutional religion faded gradually.
“Where is Jesus?” My children are fidgeting in the pew. I point to the cross above the altar. For a moment I see the Church through old and new eyes. Everything is familiar and strange. The ritual is comforting and disconcerting. With my aunt and cousins in front of me, I feel like I’m in an old photo that’s faded and discolored. I hear stories about my uncle I did not know and feel a wave of sadness. I reach for my sons’ hands, two buoys, to stay afloat.
H later tells my dad his favorite part was seeing the coffin. N tells him he hates Church because it’s so boring. I cringe and wonder how much time my dad has spent praying for their souls. For my soul. My dad has never asked for his grandkids to be baptized but I wonder if that’s because he believes he shouldn’t have to ask.
I am not living my life as my parents have lived theirs. They have lived in the same house for 40 years. I’m about to move for the fifth time in ten years. Perhaps staying in the same place, year after year, taking the same vacation, going to church every weekend was their way of manipulating time. Maybe it was their way to make sense of the passing fads, friends and needs of their kids. Maybe they felt the passage of time was made easier by sinking into place and standing on familiar ground.
“What about this backpack? Do you want it to come to California or can we throw it away?” I vacillate between wanting my kids to be part of the moving process and wanting to secretly go through closets and drawers when they aren’t around. The movers come next week. I’m feeling the need to include them.
“Throw it away,” N says, “but I’m bringing this.” He holds up a stuffed giraffe that plays a lullaby. He learned minutes earlier that giraffe used to sit in his crib, though neither the lullaby nor the warm smile of the yellow giraffe did much to help soothe him to sleep. I didn’t remember sticking on the top shelf of the closet. “Well, I love it now.”
Moving forces me to consider the importance of stuff. My tendency is to want to save it all, always, no matter what. All my worldly possessions help me make sense of time passing: ticket stubs and journals, photos and dried flowers, coasters and cards. I have years of memories tucked into shoes boxes, stacks of plastic tubs full of papers and files that were once so important I can’t imagine just tossing them. But carrying ticket stubs and cards across the country only to have them remain boxed and untouched for years, makes me rethink their importance. I don’t need the plane ticket from Marseille to New York to remember how a semester in France changed my life. I don’t need a giraffe I was given at a baby shower to remember that time stops for no one but this too, is a gift. The relentless spin of the earth is not something I need to manipulate or lament.
My uncle lived a good and full life. He was a husband, father, and grandfather, and athlete friend and teacher. He loved and was loved. Isn’t that what matters? Did any of his material goods really matter?
And yet, I’m happy the lullaby giraffe is coming.
If I knew I was dying, would I care more or less about my stuff?
We measure time in sunsets and seasons, minutes and years, growth charts and shadows. We try to hold on to it by boxing memories in scrapbooks and photo albums. But these are all smoke and mirrors. Some days the sun burns red and orange and pink and blue before finally fading to black. But sometimes a switch is flipped and day turns into night. Seasons wax and wane in spite of the calendar. A ticket stubs and photos are only the platform from which we can jump into an endless sea of memories.
The kids were quiet on the way home from my uncle’s funeral. They got to play with cousins they don’t often see and are tired from an unusual weekend. Long into our ride, N asked, “How long is a year? One hundred and eighty days?”
“No, it’s like 352. The school year is 180.” H sounded like a teacher, not an older brother.
I couldn’t see their faces but I knew they were looking to me to be the authority on the matter. “The school year is 180 days but a full year — like from one Christmas to the next — is 365 days.” They were quiet.
The specifics of my answer, only made it feel more abstract.
How long is a year? Countless moments that stretch and shrink with worry and laughter and fear and happiness. Days that fly and drag, hours that get lost, a rhythm of minutes that tick on and on.
Though no one asked for clarity, I continued. “It’s hard to think about a year like that. Sometimes it’s easier to think about all the things you did in kindergarten. Then you can better understand what 180 days feel like.”
Maybe my wandering spirit is an attempt to lean in to the inevitable. Nothing is or will be the same. Moving and traveling the ground is my reminder that there is no fast forward, rewind or pause. Even time, the one constant, doesn’t always feel constant. I don’t know how to teach them this, but I hope it’s a lesson my kids learn early.
We’ve packed up most for their rooms and relax on the couch. Maybe because my husband is away or because it’s getting late and I have death and moving and time on my mind, I let my kids have ice cream topped with a Hershey kiss for dinner, on the couch, in front of the TV.
“See how I put the Hershey kiss in my ice cream,” N says to me holding up his pink plastic bowl, “I snuggle it in the middle of the ice cream. That’s like you and me. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could really do that with people? You could just cuddle in with someone and then when you die, you just keep growing with the other person.”
I stare for a moment at the ice cream that sticks like a circle around his mouth. All at once, he seems so big and still so little and so perfect. “I think maybe you just described heaven.”
Kathleen Siddell is a freelance writer. She and her family have moved around the globe most recently landing in Southern California. Her writing has been featured on The Washington Post’s On Parenting, Motherwell magazine and Mother’s Always Write among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @kathleensiddell.
I am both awed and touched by your insights. Uncle Chip would be too. We are both honored that you chose to write about him and how his passing affected you and, through you, your boys. You were special to him, and to me. Love you, Kathy.
Thank you for this wonderful remembrance and the descriptions of your children’s thoughts. Your uncle was my dear friend.