I was putting my son to bed earlier this evening when he said, in a smaller voice than the one he’d been using moments ago, “Mom, can I tell you something? I don’t want to die.”
He is seven. He thinks about these things sometimes, usually at bedtime, when there are no distractions. Some nights he will dwell on all sorts of thoughts that are scary to a seven-year-old, and occasionally this brings him out of his room and down the stairs to where my husband and I are. Thoughts, when you are seven, are not so scary when you are surrounded by loving parents and bright overhead lights.
I told him that I didn’t want to die, either, and he followed this up with “Then why do we have to die? We don’t deserve it.” And I went on to talk about how all living things, plant or animal, have a life cycle – they have some sort of birth, they grow and mature, maybe they have some sort of babies, they grow older, and, eventually, they die. My son did the math quickly and told me he hopes to live at least another 93 years, so he’ll be a hundred. I told him one of my grandmothers lived to be 98. His odds are pretty good genetically, at least on my side of the family tree.
Next he asked if he’d live a long time if he did healthy things. And that’s where I stumbled a bit. I told him that usually eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise will help you live a long life, but that other things are important, too. Things like creativity and curiosity and enthusiasm. I wanted to convey, somehow, that it’s not just how long you live, but how you live. He knows, without me telling him, that sometimes life is cut short too soon, no matter what foods you eat or whether you brush your teeth twice a day or only once. He has lost pets, and he has lost an aunt, and a great-uncle. He has grieved, and questioned, and come to terms with death in his own way and in his own time. We talk, occasionally, about a person’s spirit, or soul, or whatever one chooses to call it. But he does not seem ready to pursue this idea, and so these are short conversations so far.
I am considerably older than my son, and sometimes, usually late at night or too early in the morning, when the house is quiet, I think of scary things, too. All those “what ifs” drifting into my mind. Thoughts I don’t want to complete, because I don’t want to give them power. The older I get, the more I believe that what we send out there, into the universe, into the ether, comes back to us. Or at us, depending. And so, I fight harder to banish the fearful voices and their horrible questions. I don’t want to dwell on what ifs. I want…just a good night’s sleep, actually. Once upon a time I had anxiety attacks on a regular basis. I was afraid. Of what? I don’t know. Everything, maybe. Death. Life. Or lack of a life. There were family issues that probably weren’t helping. But whatever was going on, I wasted years of my life frozen. So much time. So much time I will never get back. I am not in my twenties any more. I’m not even in my thirties any more. Where did it go? Why did I let it fall from my hands so easily? So irresponsibly. And now, in my forties, I am trying to cram in as much as I can. I wasted so much time worrying about the “what ifs” that I never really did much. Foolish, sad, frightened girl. I want to hug her, and tell her to let go of those scary thoughts. And the only way to do that, I think, is to strip away all those protective, self-preserving cloaks she wrapped herself in, and find her, and give her a chance to live the rest of her life way she should. Fearlessly. I think our time here is meant to be stuffed to overflowing with things like love and laughter, passion, curiosity, creativity, compassion, generosity, and, yes, fruits and vegetables. All the good stuff.
That’s what I want my kids to learn. (I have a daughter, too. She has giggling fits at bedtime. She’s five.) But the thing I’ve learned, and continue to learn as a parent, is that my kids won’t necessarily remember what I tell them when they are drifting off to sleep. But they are watching me, and watching their father, and they are observing and absorbing every little thing about us. Some of it will stick with them, some of it won’t. I can only hope that the good stuff sticks. To this end, and to combat my own unbanished fears, I’m putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I’m learning to ski. That may not seem to make any sense whatsoever, but trust me, it does. I’m facing fear. I’m facing death (okay, I exaggerate a little there). And I’m (hopefully) teaching my kids that you are never too old to try something new. That you can, and should, continue to learn all through your life. That if you are living fully, you’ll have no time to worry about death. And that their mother will risk embarrassment and broken limbs in order to prove those points.