mortality

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That question about dying…you asked it too soon

Published January 16, 2014 by jay p laughlin
Always her favorite

Always her favorite

Our first trip back to the zoo was a lot of fun. We hit all of ZK’s usual favorites: the carousel ride (which is no longer the “carry-self”), the Komodo dragon, and the Asian elephants. There were, however, some marked changes in her reactions to these. The biggest is that she is no longer enamored with the elephants. While looking at them you could see her shrivel her nose and hear her quick, short breaths of air as she sniffed.

ZK: Elephants are stinky.

Me: Yes, they are very stinky.

ZK: Elephants smell like yucky poo. I want to go see the snakes.

So off we went to find the snakes.

Comparing the pictures of her from today with the ones from last year in the same places really demonstrated how quickly she is growing. It was a bittersweet kind of day in that regard. Part of me wants her to slow that growing just a bit. But being there to experience the little steps in her growing personality and maturity is amazing.

The tone of the bittersweet zoo trip started on our walk to the entrance. A brief conversation that took me completely off-guard started as follows:

ZK: The animals don’t want to get us, do they Papa?

Me: Nooo, they want to stay happy in their homes.

ZK: If they get us, we might die.

Me (with a dropped jaw): That’s very true. But I think we’ll be safe in the zoo.

I should note that our cat, Maceo, died a little over a week ago. As a parent, I don’t think there’s a time when we say we want to introduce the concept of death to our children. Usually, circumstances force that introduction upon us. So at the age of 3, Jenni and I had to have that conversation with her. She’s seems to be taking it well and, obviously, thinking about what it means. And, perhaps, it is easier to learn at this age because comprehension of its permanence comes in small bits every day in questions like “will Maceo come back today?” that are asked on each day.

The conversation continued:

ZK: Because we don’t want to die huh?

Me: No, we don’t want to die.

ZK: Because we don’t want to die together huh? That’s so silly!

Me: That’s right. We don’t want to die together either.

And then…the freight train struck:

ZK: Are you going to die, Papa?

Ho-ly SHIT! In hindsight, perhaps the entire lead up to this question should have warned me that this one might be coming. In my own conception of what ZK is capable of (which is pretty freakin’ huge, I should add) I never imagined that she’d think to ask this question yet. Perhaps, I was just denying it to myself simply because I didn’t want to answer this question yet. Interesting, because the answer is quite simple.

Me (tears practically breaking throught): Yes, sweetheart. I am going to die some day.

ZK: Are you going to die tomorrow?

Me: No, I am not going to die tomorrow.

I should note that there is some ambiguity in the way ZK uses the word tomorrow that I took advantage of here to end the conversation. The her, tomorrow means both the standard meaning of “the day after today” and her personal meaning of “sometime later.” I chose to answer as if she intended to use the standard meaning and left it at that.  In recounting the events of the day to Jenni and her mom, I left this little detail out. When ZK asked if I was going to die, I almost cried. Later that evening I felt that strong sense of sorrow welling up again and felt that, if I spoke the words, I wouldn’t be able to keep my composure.

The timing of the conversation concluded just as we approached to gate attendant and I asked ZK if she wanted to show the lady our pass. She did, of course, and proceeding to tell the attendant about going to see the dragons. However, I felt  that we should have a little fun beforehand given the weight of what we just discussed. (Probably more for my benefit than hers).

Me: Let’s go ride the carousel FIRST!

ZK: O-KAY!

It's no longer a "carry-self"

It’s no longer a “carry-self”

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A Letter to My Daughter: On Mortality

Published May 2, 2012 by jay p laughlin

May 1, 2012

ZK,

You are growing much too fast. Sometimes I just want a few more moments with you at a couple of days or weeks old. Not because I think things were better then, or that you are difficult now. It’s been a thrill experiencing every single one of your milestones with you. And I am eager to experience those to come. In fact, you’ve given me the gift of seeing the world anew.

Instead, it’s because time has passed so quickly since your birth that I must constantly confront my own mortality, and yours. Reflect upon it and embrace it. It’s as sobering and humbling as it is exciting and electrifying. There is not a single night that passes that the enormity of our mortality does not haunt my thoughts. I want just a few more moments of the newness of you to assuage the breath-taking weight of knowing that, someday, we will be apart.

It’s not that I fear what is to come in death. I won’t feel it, or know that it has happened. In the sense of ‘non-existence,’ I was ‘dead’ in the aeons past and suffered not at all for it. Instead, I will return to the nothingness from which we are born, without you and your mom. But if I imagine a future you after I have passed, I miss rather than fear the loss of future experiences with the two of you. I miss, in advance, the loss of sharing our lives and your mother’s embrace. As I struggle with how fast you grow up, and the speed with which you develop into this wonderful person, I miss these things to come in much the same way that I miss those that have past: you as a tiny newborn, your first steps. I miss them, but am thrilled to be a part of you now and throughout our mortal existence.

But comfort comes. At some point in the aeons to come, the substance of our bodies will return, not just to this Earth but, to the cosmos itself. Perhaps we will then participate in the creation of another star, another world, another system of life. Or, perhaps, it will be all of them together. Though we won’t know it when it happens, we can contemplate it now and share that with each other and those around us. This is nothing short of remarkable. It is awe-inspiring, glorious, and beautiful. It is beauty. And, if beauty can be said to endure beyond all consciousness and minds to perceive it, it is a beauty that endures.

You are beautiful. And if I could, I would ensure that you endured as you are now for as long as beauty itself. Though the depth of human ability is profound, this is beyond anyone’s capacity. But know, when you look to the planets and the stars, that this beauty in eternity is our all-too-human destiny.

I love you always,

Papa

(Cross-posted here).

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin