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Life and Death: How DOES it work?

February 9, 2010

The first time my 10-year-old daughter asks the whys and hows of death, I take her aside and tenderly explain.

The second time, I am sympathetic but impatient.

The third time I am downright cranky. I want to take her by the quick route, the Cliff’s Notes way, to what we adults already know.

“Yes, you die; yes, you don’t know when or how; and, yes, the people around you die. But we don’t walk around thinking about it all the time.”

There are so many more things to think about other than death. They are different for every person. But for most of us, they start the moment we turn on the lights and then just keep coming.

“We think about other things,” I want to tell her, “like what kind of lawn mower we are going to get, who will take care of the cats when we’re on vacation, did we fill out the warranty form for the dishwasher, how will we pay for college, and why don’t you wear the sweater I bought you before you outgrow it?”

When she circles back to the question, I field a sigh. I can’t figure out how to explain it, the whole life-and-death package. Suddenly it seems a spectacularly raw deal. We are cast into this life among people we love—if we are lucky. And the more people we love, the more people we stand to lose.

“Why is it like that?” she asks, because I am in charge of everything.

Except this. It’s dawning on her: I brought her into this life, and there is only one way out. She looks tricked. I want to hide.

If my audience were different, or my daughter older, I would reveal the irony: Those things that in comparison with death seem trivial—things so banal they are not even worth listing—those things, oddly, creep in and take over, and that is how you can live.

I can’t tell my daughter because she is too young, it is too peculiar, and I would have to confess to colluding in the cheery pretense that life — a blinding miracle — goes on like hills in the distance: forever.

What befell the wonder? Do I not notice that every day I live I am living? The fact registers with my daughter, who notes the moments when both parents are with her, so brilliantly alive. Each day she is like a teacher taking roll. She is more anxious than in wonder.

In time the habit wanes and she catches on to what we all do, with a twist. She wonders not just at death but at the small, transient and fetching parts of life: the first pair of cardinals to alight on a branch, the idiosyncratic shape of a continent she has learned to draw, the lyrics of a song she has heard and misremembered.

Her preoccupation has come and gone like weather, replaced by a more or less clear-blue sky.

Published in Chicago Tribune Perspective, July 20, 2008

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