When my older kid Finn finds a topic of interest, he can cling to it like nobody’s business. So it has been with the idea of death. He asks about death a lot, which began, at first, as an innocuous obsession with people’s ages.
He asks me every single day how old I am. He knows how old I am. He also knows I hate to say the number, which feels like a cold slap in the face every time I say it. But he keeps asking, and I keep answering. It’s like a security blanket for him. Finn also correlates height with age, meaning that he was absolutely floored when Tom informed him, indignantly, that he was NOT the oldest person on our block. “What about Dennis? He has grandkids, for God’s sake. You think I’m older than DENNIS??” Finn squared his shoulders and gave a mulish expression. “You’re taller than Dennis, Daddy.”
The death thing would not bug me so much except that it was only recently that the thought really hit me that I will die one day. If that sounds strange to you, perhaps you’ve not had your moment. I had lunch with my friend Harry and he’s my age. He had his moment recently too, so maybe 35 is when shit gets real. People I love have died, but until that day that I drove my car on Burnside right past Powell’s, it never really sunk in that I would cease to exist one day, and that the earth would keep turning. I felt like my lungs were collapsing, and could not get air. So this was what it felt like, to be confronted with one’s mortality! I felt so intellectual, so French—like a baguette. Anyway, since that day, it’s been harder to hear Finn’s questions about death, especially this one: “When will you die, Mommy?” He doesn’t even have the decency to sound bummed when he asks.
Finn’s lovely teacher Stephanie tells us that an obsession with death can be common at this age. And I believe it. But I also believe Finn might be a little more obsessed than usual, because both of his grandfathers died before he was born. In an effort to make them real to him, we talk about them sometimes, which inevitably leads to the reality that they are not present, and that we cannot know them as we know our other family members.
On our way to the laundromat last week, Finn peered at me through the rearview mirror, from behind his large glasses, which tend to make him look, in such moments, like a curious owl. “What day did your daddy die, Mommy?” “May 16th, buddy,” I answered. “No, Mommy. What day of the WEEK. You know, like Monday, Friday…” I stopped to think. I remembered that I’d been out late with friends the night I heard, at a Denny’s in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. I didn’t like to think about that night. It felt like poking at an open wound with a knife. I remembered dropping the phone and running down the dorm hallway to pound on my friend’s door. I remembered the kindness of the ex-boyfriend I’d recently broken up with, who appeared at the airport in Boston and held me tight. I remembered flying home in a trance, and being picked up in Portland, not by my dad—who was always there, waiting for me at the gate—but by my uncle, who had no words.
I looked at Finn. “Saturday, buddy. It was a Saturday.” Finn nodded, as if satisfied at sliding a puzzle piece into place. And I nodded back, unexpectedly grateful for that moment—to have been asked about that day, to have made that connection across time and space between my dad and my son, and to have remembered.