This sudden, scratchy inquiry emerges from the eight year old snuggled under my armpit. One minute we're howling at what Miller inadvertently called Christina Aguilera's "calluses" (she meant cleavage, but noticing how rough around the edges Xtina looks tonight, I think calluses might also be a pretty accurate descriptor) and the next we're having our quarterly "Revolt Against Death" talk. Just one of several heartsick habits here.
"I really want us to die on the same day, Mom. If we can. Because I don't think I could go on without you. That would be too sad for me." Voice now quivering, she is on the verge of tears and I quickly pull her closer so she isn't hit by my falling jaw.
It's at this moment I give brief thanks for the fact I have started feverishly biting my fingernails again. Because that's likely the only thing that's currently preventing me from being able to claw into my chest cavity with my own fingers to pull out my aching heart. Cue my mental Iron and Wine montage. Geese sadly fly south over autumn's ending while I'm quietly whispering the likely sad truth my heart wants to share as beautifully as Sam Beam.
"One of us will die inside these arms
eyes wide open
naked as we came
one will spread our ashes round the yard..."
"That's not the way it works, Miller. It's not up to us. Plus, if I have my way, you are going to live many, many years beyond me into what I imagine will be your really beautiful, wonderful life." That's about all I can muster before I start biting into the east side of my mouth to defer the pain from my chest. And look! Calluses Aguilera is back from her commercial break and so it appears we can thankfully start the laugh tracks again.
"So has anyone ever tried hanging on?"
This was another couch question tossed at me a few weeks later, seemingly from left field. Well, actually from my left armpit where the always curious blondie was again snuggled deep in my side while windshield wipering the top of her lemon Italian ice with her spoon.
"Tried hanging on? Hanging on to what? And who is hanging?" I obviously have no idea what this kid is talking about right now. But if you've ever held court and conversation with an eight year old girl, you know this kind of confusion isn't uncommon.
"You know, like when you die. Has anyone ever tried to hang on to, like, the grass? Or a tree branch? You know...like right before you die and before you're sucked up to heaven or the sky or wherever you go. Has anyone ever tried to hang on to the grass?" She musters up what I imagine is supposed to be some sort of a death face, eyes crossed and rolling up into her noggin while she pretends to grab at something.
How absolutely sweet and amazing and hilarious and wonderful. How absolutely, annihilatingly Miller. I begin to imagine people frantically hanging onto garden gnomes and grasping flamingo necks...people white-knuckling tree branches and grasping onto fistfuls of grass and I can't help but laugh.
Thankfully, she starts laughing too.
"I don't know, Miller. I just don't think that would actually work, do you?"
She pauses to give it more consideration and smirks.
"Probably not. I mean, I don't see a lot of people hanging around. So that probably wouldn't work even if you tried, I guess." She seems a little bit sad as her raspy voice trails off a bit, but soon we both start a low-grade church giggle that thankfully lasts for the next several minutes and lightens the air.
Death and dying questions and conversations happen frequently in this house. They originate from both the boy and the girlie, who are each pretty thougthful and sensitive souls.
"Why are we even here if we just have to die and leave after? That's just really sad."
"Does everything have to die?"
"What happens when you die?"
"How many dead people do you know?"
"Have you every touched a dead person?"
Most often, when the death chatter comes, it's in response to a very overtired, melancholy voice simply stating the obvious.
"I really don't want to die."
This is probably a great time to give credit and thanks to Leo Buscalgia and Daniel, his calm, knowing leaf, for arming me with some simple, lovely language to comfort my little fretting "Freddies." Death can indeed feel very big and scary if we linger too long, molding our mental death masks. Instead, let's acknowledge it and move on, loves. Let's try to concentrate on living our best life and doing our individual and collective jobs. Better to "experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain" and to "learn to dance and to laugh."
Because in the end, once all this wonderful living takes place, Daniel the wise, wide leaf gently reminds us, "Everything dies."
That's how it's beautifully described in Buscalgia 's book "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf." That's the way it's ideally supposed to be.
But as we know, and are sadly reminded, that's not always the way it happens. We were reminded of this recently when a very bright, lovely, and promising 16 year old took his own life as it was seemingly just entering the starting gate.
He was extended family, the son of the cousin of my former husband on the Batchelder side of his family, which comes flanked with an unspoken "once you're in, you're in" motto. Sicilian mafia style. So regardless of things like divorce and time, our family tightly remains family and my kids saw first hand several adult hearts fracture as we all baked and fondled Kleenex and tried to grasp this magnificent loss and what it meant to all who loved him dearly and were left behind to cope.
This prompted the kids to ask some really difficult questions. Being naturally curious and slightly obsessed death themselves, they really wanted to understand why a person would feel the need to end their life. Why would someone actually choose to die?
"But why, mom?" (repeat eight million times)
There are sadly established things that can't be properly compartmentalized with words. Suicide is one. Especially when from the comfortably-seated audience you only see a successful, wonderful, hopeful motion picture playing out. So I've tried to carefully navigate this, explaining that one of the most beautiful things about teenagers is they are often boldly brave and incredibly impulsive.
However, one of the most horrible thing about teenagers is that they are often boldly brave and incredibly impulsive.
I keep telling my kids that it's OK that it doesn't make sense right now. I hug them tightly into my chest, smell their beautiful heads, and tell them how much I love them. Maybe even too much for their own good. I tell them they can, and should, keep asking me questions and that I will always try to help them find the right answers. I will also help them cope with the fact we may never find all of them.
I keep hoping that's enough.
A few weeks after the funeral, the kids randomly asked to see Cody's 16th birthday video again. We sat on the couch, arms and legs tangled, watching on the tiny screen of my phone. The chorus to Fun's "We Are Young" played and both kids began to quietly sing along. I could barely hold my 4.7 ounce phone up. "He was really handsome, Mom," Jackson remarked. I couldn't muster more than a cracked half yes from my throat, which I followed with a nod and a squeeze to his hand. I could feel Miller move her giant blues from the video to my black streaked face, which would have no doubt given Alice Cooper's a solid run for his money back in the day, and she watched and waited as I pushed my sweatshirt sleeve around to mop my face up, soaking the cuff. She sweetly patted my back to reassure me as the video ended, and with one small, perfect sentence, this eight year old defined this horrible heartbreak better that any adult could on their most articulate day.
"I think Cody just felt like he needed to let go of the grass, Mom."