Smarty Mommies is pleased to welcome Lauren Gordon into our warm, velvety fold! Lauren is the author of four chapbooks: Meaningful Fingers (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Keen (Horse Less Press, 2014), Fiddle Is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015) and Generalizations About Spines (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit. She lives with her family in the wilds of suburban Wisconsin, and, full disclosure, she is one of the Smarty Mommies' very favorite people.
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. – Mark Twain
Each week my almost five-year-old daughter and I pick out a handful of books from the library and then spend the following week reading them and talking about them. She usually picks out a book based on the cover, or if she’s read it before. I’m usually cruising the nonfiction section, trying to find books to help her learn things like identifying feelings or what it means to be empathetic or a good friend. I only have one rule when it comes to picking out books to read: there are no rules. I’ll read whatever she picks out. We’ve had a few duds, or we’ll make it halfway through before she loses interest. Until a few weeks ago, it has never been an issue.
She raced over to our table with a hardback book and a smile. I felt my face freeze into that weird parent face you get where you’re smiling and then you want to drop the smile but you don’t want your kid to know that you’re having an emotional reaction to whatever it is they’re doing. You know that one? It’s an “oh shit” face.
The book she handed me was called “Good-bye, Jeepers” and the cover artwork featured a forlorn panda bear looking into an empty cage. “What to Expect When Your Pet Dies” read the subtitle. Being the emotionally sensitive kid that she is, she of course noticed my expression right away.
“Is this okay? Are you okay? Can we read this? What is this about? Is the bear sad because there is nothing in that cage?”
Look at this sad motherfucking panda in pants. (Image Source)
Oh, shit. All I can think is, how do I do this? Do I do this? Then I’m thinking of our pet dog at home, a miniature dachshund whose name is Buttons. Buttons, our eight-year-old dog who is currently wheezing into a blanket. Am I going to traumatize my kid? Is she going to personalize the book and apply it to her life? She’s going to learn that eventually Buttons will die. Eventually I will die. Her dad will die. She will die. And I feel guilty! Like I’ve been keeping it a big secret from her, that permanence is not achievable. And cripes, wasn’t that the first thing she basically learned as a new brain? That just because an object disappears out of your line of vision doesn’t mean it doesn’t not exist any longer. Just, oh shit.
So, we read the book. Jeepers is a guinea pig who is found dead by his sweet little panda owner one morning. Stiff and cold in his cage. Yes, stiff and cold. I am reading this, I am fully into it. The story goes to show the different stages of grief, ranging from denial to anger to self-blame, the whole gamut. As we continue reading the book, I note that my daughter is slowly sinking lower and lower into the booth. Her shoulders are slumping. At one point, I hear a sniffle and stop reading.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Yes!” she says, enthusiastically. “I love this book!”
I know. Listen. She’s not a serial killer in the making, you know what I mean? I know that she’s coping with these big feelings and doesn’t want me to stop reading. And I’m all in now. I know there will be a discussion after we finish this book. I know there will be questions. I know I will be stumbling through answering them. You’ve never seen me read a book so slowly.
The book ends with the panda bear wondering when it will be time to get a new pet. His mother, wise old panda, tells him something along the lines of how he’ll know it’s the right time when he can think of Jeepers and only remember the happy times, not the heartache of losing him. It’s wonderful. We’re both quiet for a minute, looking at the last page. I put my arm around daughter’s shoulders for a squeeze before rubbing her small, bird back.
“What did you think of this book?” I ask.
“It was great. I can’t wait for Buttons to die! Can I get a guinea pig?”
The next day we are running around doing errands. I am listening to her singing in the backseat. She’ll sing along to whatever is on the radio, it doesn’t even matter if she’s heard the song or not. That is not as cute and as delightful as you might think. “What’s this song about?” she is always asking.
“It’s about a person who has been deceived by thinking they fell in love with one type of person, but they actually fell in love with a different kind of person, so they think.”
It’s been kind of a havey-cavey morning. The son of friend’s friend has just died and I’ve been watching it happen from a social distance. The news is full of pain. The weather is overcast. I’m waiting for test results. That kind of morning. We are just pulling into the Target parking lot when her tiny voice says, “everyone dies.”
I look in the rearview mirror to catch her eye, even though we’re both too short for me to make this happen. “Everyone?” I say. We do this thing where I just repeat her sometimes to get her to expound. Or as my therapist used to call it, “active listening.”
“Yes. Everyone dies.” Pause. Pause. “Well, except for kids. Kids don’t die. Only grown-ups, like when they get old.”
“Kids don’t die?” I repeat.
“Kids don’t die,” she says.
The first funeral she went to was for her great-grandfather, my husband’s grandfather. He was a dear man. I have this memory of him on FaceTime with my daughter when she was about six months old. He’s singing “Old Gray Mare,” and she is fascinated. Do you ever have time-stop memories like that? A dear man.
She was nine months old when we flew to New York for the services. If you’ve never had the privilege of taking an infant on an airplane, I highly recommend it. It’s thrilling to try to make one bag of Cheerios last for three hours while wending through airports with a teething baby, nine pieces of carry-on luggage, most of which are car seats or high chairs or strollers or whatever. Then do it all while you and your partner are grieving.
It’s hard to be a griever in the ancillary family position. I have this responsibility to mother, but to also be available for the emotional and physical support, because I can be expendable like that. I’m not complaining. I could compartmentalize enough to be supportive for my husband’s family, and I knew that having my daughter there was balm. That anyone could go from this wrenching goodbye and then see her wet, red face wreathed with a gummy smile – we go on. It goes on.
During the service, she is a little noisy, so I take her in the stroller and we go for a walk. We listen to the music from outside the church and we roll the stroller through dried leaves. We look at flowers and bees and at one point, we both cry. Sometimes things hurt and you just have to let them hurt. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn in this lifetime. We sat on a stone bench and we let it hurt. It’s a shitty thing about death. You don’t just grieve the person you’re actively grieving, but every person you’ve ever lost.
And there are thousands of ways to lose a person.
I grew up in a suburb way outside of Los Angeles with a younger brother and a working single mother. Sometimes her commute meant we were the first kids dropped off at school and the last kids to leave. Or if we were taking the bus, we came home together to an empty house and did the stuff kids like us did; save homework to the last minute, raid the refrigerator, make frozen dinners, watch the shows we weren’t supposed to (what eight-year-old doesn’t love “Three’s Company”?) and basically eke out our Lord of the Flies existence until my mother came home.
Thank you for introducing me to the wide world of sexual shenanigans. (Image Source)
By the time she would get home, it would be dark outside and she’d be exhausted. If the house wasn’t in perfect order by the time she walked through the sliding glass door, we knew shit would hit the fan. I was fastidious about keeping her happy, because I often felt unhappy. The nights she came home late unexpectedly were the hardest. This was pre-mobile phone time and there was no way for her to let us know that there had been an accident on the 101 (when wasn’t there) or if traffic was just particularly hideous because it rained (oh, California) or whatever.
She kept her high school yearbooks on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the den, and on those nights when she was running late, I would sit on the hardwood floor and thumb through them, marveling at who she was before I existed. I had to do this in order to not picture her mangled, bleeding body being pried out of her car by the jaws of life. The anxiety I had about her dying and leaving us alone was so intense that she’d find me in near hysterics when she eventually arrived home. The thought of her dying was sometimes all-consuming. I didn’t know how I would exist or carry on or what would happen or how to even cope with that amount of grief.
She had a will. I didn’t know anything about it, but she’d often say with a laugh that my brother and I would be “set for life” if anything happened to her. I knew there was a fireproof lockbox at the bottom of her walk-in closet where I could find my social security card, birth certificate, credit cards, her passport.
“I always wanted to go to France,” she explained. “I just haven’t had the chance yet.”
As far as I know, she still hasn’t gone.
I didn’t lose her to death. I lost her to estrangement, many years later.
My ex-boyfriend’s mother died in California while we were living together in in Iowa. He was all she had and vice versa. One minute we were laughing hysterically and rolling wontons in the kitchen, and the next we were standing in the foyer with a cop and a priest trying to wrap our heads around the fact that she was gone. We flew out on a red eye that night, afraid to step into her house, the home we had lived in together for years. The home her body laid in for days before someone found her. My ex was numb. Being me, I took care of everything.
I learned on the fly how to do things like sell a house, tell a lawyer off, make a kugel, wash the death out of a room, and make decisions in the best interest of someone else. It changed me. I didn’t know when you call a stranger to tell them someone you both cared about has died, they might scream at you. They might not believe you. They might want all the gruesome details. And when they show up to the house for the memorial you’ve planned? They might want to go through her closet. They might want the throw pillow from her bed, the bed she was getting out of when she tripped and broke her neck against the wall.
Did you know some real estate agents will go through the death announcements in the newspaper and then knock on your door that very night to ask if you want to sell the house? Or that the first thing you should do is unplug the answering machine? This way you’re not standing in the kitchen listening to the voice of the dead tell someone to leave a message at the beep.
I learned a lot. I learned so much that I swore I never wanted to be put through the same motions with the death of my parents. Later that year I visited my mother in North Carolina, where she lived then, and begged her to have “the conversation.”
“Where is your will?” I asked.
“Everything you need is on the top shelf in this closet,” she said.
“Let’s get it out and go over it together.”
This is where she burst into tears. “I feel like you’re rushing me to die!”
I couldn’t get her to understand that I never wanted to go through the fear of that unknown again. That I wanted a plan, her plan. I couldn’t look around her house and know what was important to keep and what wasn’t. The brown velvet chair that had been reupholstered three times? The copper cricket at the fireplace hearth? Are the heirlooms important? Are the dishes important? Do you want to be buried? Where do you want to be buried? Do you want us to keep the house? Sell the house? Do you understand that it’s too much for your child to bear?
I was asking the impossible at the time, but I didn’t know it then. I wanted her plan, but other than the will, there was no plan. Her fear during this conversation was palpable. Of course, I wasn’t rushing her to die, she knew that. It was overwhelming for her to process and I probably didn’t handle it with aplomb. Being up close to death had a hardening effect on me that year. It felt easier to deal with the facts instead of the grief.
I don’t know if anyone grows up talking about making plans for death. When my daughter was born, we were asked if we wanted to purchase life insurance for her. “Just enough to cover the expenses of the funeral,” our agent told us.
“Get it,” I told my husband.
My mother and I eventually got to a place of semi-understanding what she wanted for her funeral. “Just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ a few times. Not the Judy Garland version, the Hawaiian one.”
Guessing she meant the version by this fella.
Grieving the loss of her has been complex the last few years, especially because she is still alive, and it happened at the same time I became estranged from my brother. Estrangement is its own category of grief. All I had wanted from her when we talked about death was the blueprint, the contingency plan for losing her. I wanted the directions laid out for me so I could execute them and then do my private mourning. Obviously, the universe never works like that. Somehow you’ll enact the very thing you fear in a way to control the fear of the thing you can’t control.
Now I have no idea what will happen when she dies. Will I go to the funeral? Am I still in the will? How will I grieve her on top of already grieving her? Is it going to hurt worse than it does now? Or will it bring me peace? Will it bring her peace? How do I communicate with my brother about her? Do I have moral responsibility? Legal responsibility? And none of these questions involve my daughter, who has no relationship with her estranged grandmother. It’s a totally different conversation that has to happen with her. My checklist of hard shit to talk about: death, sex, safety, and mental illness. (There is more, I promise: racism, heteronormativity, abuse, sexism, rape culture, yadda yadda – yes, I can yadda yadda because this dystopia has the tendency to overwhelm on occasion).
The one positive part of the estrangement from half of my family is that it has brought me and my daughter closer to my father and my stepmother. I had the same conversation with my dad about his plans, but it went a little differently.
“Do you have a will?” I asked.
My dad threw his head back and laughed, stretching his arms out as if to say “look around”.
“Darlin’,” he said, “I don’t have anything to leave.”
My mother used to occasionally say “when I die, I die,” like a verbal shrug, as if she would be at peace with it because she wouldn’t be here to care about it. Sometimes the selfishness of it would take my breath away.
I attended nine funerals between the years 2008 and 2010. Friends, family, friends of family, family that was not my family, and on and on. It got to the point where I had a funeral go-to dress pressed and ready. There were Catholic funerals and masses, Jewish wakes, deli platters, no deli platters, celebrations and tragedy. There were natural causes, lifestyle choices, addictions, overdoses, suicides, and accidents.
Here is what I can tell you I have learned: death sucks.
Funerals suck. Memorials suck. Being the person in charge of telephoning family and friends to let them know someone has died sucks. Being the person to order those deli platters sucks. Picking out a coffin sucks. Hugging a new widow sucks. Identifying bodies sucks. Closing bank accounts sucks. Figuring out estates and wills sucks. Trying to figure out arrangements when there is no will sucks. Going home to an empty and quiet house after the chaos sucks. It all sucks.
And the older I get, the more my own death looms in the distance. Forget my parents, both in their seventies. Now my conversations revolve around blood pressure or cholesterol or biopsies. My knees sound like they’re filled with popping corn every time I go up or down stairs. Our medical bills are beginning to rival my student loan debt.
Old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. (Image Source)
How do I prepare my daughter for my inevitable death? Yes, that almost five-year-old who can’t wait for the family dog to bite the big one so she can move on to a pet guinea pig. Freud’s age of reason doesn’t even hit until around age seven, so I have some leeway here until death becomes a less abstract concept to her (knock wood). I’ve put the work in behind the scenes. The will is there, ready to go. The financial pieces are in place. I’ve organized my office so that if anyone ever had to come in and put their hands on paperwork, it’s filed and labeled and easy to find. There is a fire-proof lock box. There is a safety deposit box. There are bank accounts. There are policies with her name on it. There are emergency contacts. There are people who love her and would raise her to the best of their heart’s capabilities.
This is the best I can do for her right now.
We are going to have to talk about these things when she is old enough to handle it emotionally, but it’s new for me to treat this as an ongoing conversation. It’s like the sex talk. Don’t you just assume it’s one talk and then we’re all good? At least, that’s mostly how it was for me. I came home from school one day and there were two books on my bed: What’s Happening to Me? and Where Did I Come From? And the illustrations are every bit embarrassing as you think they would be. The 1970's were the halcyon days of cartoon boners.
So, I have to keep talking to her about dying. I have to not be afraid of it.
When I think of losing my husband or my daughter, my throat closes in a panic and I am back on that floor in front of the bookcase looking at my mother’s yearbooks. This is the best I can do here - talk about it. Write about it. Think about it. Check out books about dead guinea pigs and be present for as much as my consciousness can handle. Sometimes I am going to cook with salt. Chances are there will be pizza in my future. There will be real doctor’s appointments and fake ones. Right now my daughter loves to play doctor. She says “okay mama, I’m dead and you have to bring me back to life with hugs and kisses.”
Ah. If only, my sweet.
I was six years old when my dad's uncle Carmine died. You’re not Italian if you don’t have an Uncle Carmine. He was a lovely man with a giant set of dentures he could pop out of his mouth with his tongue, whenever he wanted. And when us kids were around, he wanted. I think my brother might still be traumatized to this day after those flying teeth landed on his beloved blanket.
My mother told us he had passed away while she was driving us home from a visit with my dad. We were in the backseat at a stoplight, right near Sweetheart’s Ice Cream. I remember, because I was thinking about their bubblegum ice cream. It was smurf-blue and had gigantic gumballs in it that I would carefully lick clean, then pile into my napkin. When the ice cream was gone and my tongue was blue, I would stick the gumball mountain into my messy mouth and chew the biggest wad I could manage. The sensory experience of eating this disgusting crap is forever mingled in my brain with my first memory of losing someone I loved to death.
I met my mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror and wasn’t sure how to feel, so I immediately burst into tears. I felt like a phony, as if I were performing my grief in a way that I thought was expected. I could tell she was nervous to tell us so I gave her what she wanted. But inside I felt confused and not sure of how I was supposed to feel.
Now, had I read “Good-bye, Jeepers” at the time I might have known this is a normal reaction to death. We didn’t attend the funeral, although we desperately wanted to. I don’t blame my mother; how could you take two small kids to a funeral in Jersey for a man who is no longer a part of your family? I just know as a young kid, I felt cheated, like I was missing out on something. Naïve kid. I didn’t know there would be a lifetime of catching up.
Carmine’s death was not a pall for long. Weeks later, we received a small package in the mail with no note. Inside was a small wind-up toy of chattering teeth.
Here is what I can teach you, my daughter.
Grief sucker punches you and leaves you on the curb. Or it makes you laugh out of nowhere. And sometimes grief is a photograph tucked in a book you had forgotten about. It always finds you. Grief shows up at weddings and birthday parties and it even picks out dates on the calendar to show up every year. Sometimes you just live with it for so long that it becomes a skin. Sometimes it’s so sharp and surprising that you must stop what you’re doing.
It does other things, too. It heals things that you didn’t think could be healed. It can give you a callous. It can make you callous. It can change the way you look at your neighbor. Your brother. A stranger. But it can also bond you to someone in indelible, incredible ways. It can seal a memory. It can become familiar. You can use it. You can ignore it.
You slipped and fell when you got out of the bathtub last night. I heard your father tell you not to jump out, but you didn’t listen. And when you fell, you cried, and he rushed to hug you and make you feel better, because he’s a good dad like that. And I thought about how much I hate to hear you in pain. How your suffering is my suffering. How I must make sure that my suffering is never your suffering. And how sometimes it’s okay to let you sit in the pain.
And I will leave you, eventually, but only sort of. I don’t want you to sit in the pain of that for too long. I want you to remember the hug after the fall, not the fall. Eventually I will want to become a wind-up toy, or maybe a ukulele song.