While I was digging in the garden yesterday, separating chunks of dirt from the roots of grass and weeds so I could create a new space to plant things, I had a conversation I never saw coming. My eldest, 5.5 year old Everett, asked me what treasure I would bring him. I was confused for a moment, but only a moment.
Earlier in the day we had spent some time painting driftwood. Treasures we plan to take to Rebecca’s graveside when Everett is ready. I thought that day would be today, but halfway there he crumpled in the car and asked not to go. He was afraid of “the dead zone”. Part of me wanted to smile, the mental leap from Stephen King to Christopher Walken to Anthony Michael Hall was lightening fast for me. But I knew better. The Dead Zone to Everett is something from a nightmare he has had since Rebecca died. He can’t or won’t tell me exactly what it is, just that it terrifies him and that it exists in the cemetery.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “Remember when we went to Aunt Debbie’s grave? Remember how there was a lump of dirt and a wreath and many grave markers all around? It’ll be like that. Only Becca’s lump of dirt will be much smaller, because she was buried like Grandma Ruth, not like Aunt Debbie.” Still, we didn’t go. Not today.
Yesterday, though, he wanted to talk about his death. Because he is convinced he will die before I do. A friend of mine who lost a parent as a child says it is probably comforting to him to think of it this way, because it means I will always be with him. Maybe so. But yesterday I was worried about his belief regarding his own life span. So my response was to tell him, “Everett you are going to live a long, long, long life. I will die a long time before you. This is my hope.” At which point he began saying how he would draw me a heart. For on my box.
“What box?” I asked, confused.
“The box you’ll be buried in.” He replied.
Then we talked about the ways in which a person can be interred. Because I believe in sharing factual information with the kids and because I don’t want them thinking X is going to happen if really Y is what I plan. For Everett, expectations are everything. If something is not what he was expecting he gets upset, sometimes very upset. I can imagine this would be one of those things where our shared deep-memory – in which we both remember things that happened so long ago our parents can hardly believe we are still bringing them up.. is that eidetic memory? – would come back to bite us if we led him astray. So we talked about casket burial, like Aunt Debbie. He’d spent a lot of time worried about her being comfortable or hungry in the casket at that funeral. I had told him she was comfortable. That there was the softest fabric inside the casket, and yes, there was a little pillow for her.
Next we talked about cremation, because that is what happened with Grandma Ruth and Rebecca. “What’s cremation?” He asked. So in the simplest way I could think of I explained it. “You know how we have fires in the fireplace?….” “…It’s what her parents wanted for her. People have all sorts of preferences when it comes to how to handle these things.”
And then I braced myself. How to explain the next part? “For instance,” I continued, “I won’t have a box when I’m buried. So you won’t be able to draw a heart on it. And actually I’m not going to be buried at all. I am going to help science by sending my body off to help people learn what different things happen when a person dies. So the scientists can help other people.*” At his stricken look I quickly added, “Don’t worry, you won’t see my body. You will never see my body, but there will still be a marker somewhere for you to visit when you miss me.”
He relaxed, tilted his head and said, “Then I will take one of daddy’s markers and write that I miss you and I love you on your stone.” One of daddy’s markers being a Sharpie.
Graffiti grave stone… I think I like that plan.
Later last night, as I was making a visit to investigate why he’d been out of his room past bedtime, he unveiled what he’d been working on with his Magna Doodle. He was practicing the words he’d want to write on my marker. Hours and hours after we’d had what had really been a 10 minute conversation in the backyard, yet still it occupied his mind. Sweet and morbid all in one fell swoop.
I would never deny him whatever he needs to help him navigate this new awareness of death. One that doesn’t come to the very old, as it did 102 year old Grandma Ruth. Or the sort-of-old who are sick, as it did to his Great Aunt Debbie. But to a peer. A child. Someone that could be him.
* Yeah, I’m pretty sure that is the mildest way to explain having your body sent to a body farm while not adding to their nightmare problems. I hope, anyway.