The other day, I was emptying crumbs from our toaster, when it occurred to me I’d never shown either of my kids how to do this simple chore. My 17-year-old daughter was in the dining room at the time, so I carried the toaster in there to demonstrate, while it was fresh on my mind.
“I have something I need to show you,” I told her. “In case I die, you need to know how to do this.” I then gave a brief lesson on sliding in and out the crumb tray, with emphasis on the importance of replacing it as soon as it’s emptied. My son was in the living room, and I gave a repeat performance for him.
When I was finished, my daughter said, “That’s it? If you die, that’s what we need to know?”
I considered for a minute and answered, “I should probably show you how to check the oil level in the car, too. And the tire pressure. Also, there’s a drip pan under the refrigerator.”
I don’t expect to die any time soon, but you never can tell. I have a friend who has stage IV cancer. She has a son not much older than my daughter. This brings home to me that parents aren’t always around to see their children move on all the way to adulthood. Her son seems incredibly responsible for his age. But every parent I know questions whether she/he has done enough to prepare their offspring for the realities of life. Every so often, a detail comes to my attention – the crumb tray in the toaster – and I think, “What else have I forgotten to teach them?”Of course, they’ll need to know about house and car maintenance even if I live to be 120. But I have death on my mind lately.
So does my mom, it seems. She’s starting to talk about it. I try my best to listen and let her say whatever she feels the need to say. Ever practical, she speaks of it the same way I do – “I want to make sure So-and-So gets the turquoise necklace…Do you have the paperwork on my pre-paid funeral?…” as if she wants to make sure she’s going to die in a responsible manner. She doesn’t usually go on at length.
I find it tempting to say something dismissive, like “Who knows, you might outlive me!” But what mother wants to think about that. She’s already lost two children. She doesn’t want to outlive any more of us. Or I could say, “But I’m planning your 100th birthday party!” But I don’t, because we both know she won’t live to 100. I want her to. I wish I could believe she’d live for another decade or more. It’s not beyond reason to hope she has three or four more years. But it could be shorter. Her heart is not in good shape, and she has lupus. I remember my grandmother speaking of her own death as she become older and more feeble. I believe it’s a need people have as they see their time approaching; they need the acknowledgment of their reality. I don’t know if I understand it, but I do believe this, because I’ve seen it enough times now – people who can see the end in sight need to be able to say so.
Five years ago, at my dad’s funeral, I had a terrible moment. My parents both come from large families, so I had several aunts and uncles present. As I looked at them all gathered together in the pews, I saw my future flash before me, and it was line of funerals. Indeed, it is coming to pass. I attend more funerals than I used to. The youngest of my dad’s siblings is the only one left of her original birth family. One of my mom’s sisters passed away last year. Their generation is going. Approximately once a week, I dream that my mother dies while I’m with her. Then I wake up and check my phone for messages, and lie awake for a while waiting, until it doesn’t ring for long enough that I can say to myself, “Okay, not ESP, only anxiety.”
I’m having to make a place in my life for death. But what I’ve come to see, since my terrible revelation at my dad’s funeral, is the balance. There are more funerals. Death is happening all around all of the time. But it is part of life. The rest of life still happens. I’m still planting petunias in my yard. My kids are still creating groan-worthy puns, strawberries in season still taste wonderful, my friend is still living, my mom is still living. All of us here on Earth are both living and dying. Some are just getting to the dying part sooner than others. I get to speak with my mom every day. She finds things to enjoy each day – a bird magazine, her dessert, my son showing up at the nursing home to play the piano for her, the flowers people send on occasion.
Maybe there’s something she’s teaching me right now, something she wants to make sure I know. Maybe it’s this: death is going to happen in its own time. Face this truth and then keep living until you die. Maybe that’s it.