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the dark side

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.

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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.

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27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ginger #

    Wow, Yoona – Beautiful post. Often I’ve wondered who is teaching whom when I’m with my children. When they were young they had such an innocent and natural way to of asking questions that bubbled up meaningful and touching moments from my life. Finn is one amazing boy!

    December 6, 2012
  2. laura #

    i think your posts are lovely and often quite funny. this was was moving, too. my dad died when i was nine and i’m still trying to figure out how to grieve for someone i didn’t really know.

    i’m sorry for your loss. thanks for writing about it and sharing your thoughts with us.

    December 3, 2012
    • I hardly have a memory from when I was 9–but my husband has keen memories from a much younger age. I think it’s enough (and admirable) to grieve and try to remember, although sometimes it can feel like a hopeless endeavor

      December 3, 2012
  3. wow – touching! I’m sure you’re a great mom who does everything the way you’re supposed to 🙂 Really great post! And he looks like a cute little guy 🙂

    December 3, 2012
    • no that is absolutely not the case. but thank you anyway

      December 3, 2012
  4. hope #

    We do a lot of backpacking, and talk about how old the trees are. The biggest, strongest ones are usually the oldest. We say “Wow, look at the big tree. It must be really really old.” So when my husband turned 46, my daughter asked how old he was. He answered and she said “Wow, you must be really strong daddy.” Needless to say, he loved that. BTW, I met you at the Albina library the other day…hello again.

    December 2, 2012
    • hi hope! lovely to read this after our canning exchange at the library. and i love the idea of putting a human lifespan in the context of something older, more lasting. gives it the proper perspective

      December 3, 2012
  5. That was touching and I love reading your writing. A great blog you have here, glad to discover it.

    December 2, 2012
  6. funny kid! 🙂 Kids really says funny things. They are so pure. I don’t like to be asked my age too. K

    December 1, 2012
    • i think it’s confusing because a six year old loves nothing more than to be asked his age

      December 3, 2012
  7. At some point in the series meditation class I give to adults in alcohol and drug rehab, I say “Raise your hand if you’re going to die.” You’d be surprised by the number of people who don;t raise their hands.

    This culture doesn’t honor death as other cultures do, unfortunately.

    I’m ok with my own mortality.

    November 30, 2012
    • I’m envious. And that story is an eye opener.

      December 3, 2012
  8. Molly #

    In 2010 both of my grandparents and my father passed away in the space of a few months. My boys were 4 and 6 at the time and went to more funerals then I would have wanted them to. It was also the first time I think they saw me cry. My grandfather’s funeral, in particular seemed, to make the biggest impression as he was a WW2 veteran. He had a military service with an honor guard and 6 gun salute. Even months later, apropos of nothing, my youngest and I would be doing our usual thing, driving in the car or shopping at Target and he would suddenly say “remember when Poppop died and then the soldiers fired the guns and you cried?” “That was cool.”

    November 30, 2012
    • I’ll take a good inappropriate association over no memory of the occasion, any day. thank you for sharing that story–so real.

      December 3, 2012
  9. omg yoona, this brought tears to my eyes. (good ones). i was w my mom on this past monday, it was her 80th birthday (nov. 26) and we did what we always love to do: we went to target then to ihop and had patty melts. i told her then, and it is true, that she looks great and does not seem old to me at all and she laughed. i’m lucky to still have her and i really realized that on monday. she’s def on the “short side”…she’s acutely aware of this and it breaks my heart a little. but it’s the deal, right? no escape. yea, no kidding, shit gets real (i’m waaay past 35, so maybe i’m a late bloomer?). i’ve been seriously ill in my life so i’ve sort of reckoned w it w in myself, but seeing my mom and knowing she’s headed to the finish line is really what drove it home for me.

    finn sounds like an awesome kid. how fascinating it would be to be able to see things through his eyes (and those fantastic glasses!) the whole world is a mystery to them…and in fact, it really is but maybe we just forget that it is.

    thanks for the reminder. happy weekend.

    November 30, 2012
    • oh boy. you had me at target and IHOP. your mom sounds awesome and I love that you have this ritual, which will be a comfort to keep you warm when she passes, as we all inevitably must. thank you for your comment friend

      December 3, 2012
  10. Very touching…I love how kids make us aware of things that we sometimes aren’t aware of at that moment.

    November 30, 2012
  11. Courtney #

    So sad and moving. When Stella was this age, we had a cat, Suki, hit by a car. She never saw the body, which was quickly cremated, but for a solid 18 months, Stella kept drawing pictures of Suki everywhere, a white cat with a little brown ear, spattered in blood. Regardless of how festive the setting was, Suki was drenched in red crayola. It must have something to do with the age. I think about death all the time and I hate it. I like my life too much.

    November 30, 2012
    • stella is an original, which in my opinion is one of the best things you could hope for as a parent. i think just having kids can make death real; you love them so much that you can’t help but think, in the worst moments, of being parted from them

      November 30, 2012
  12. My dad died on March 25, 2012 which was a Sunday and my husband’s dad died on April 10, 2009 which happened to be Good Friday that year. Our daughter knew my dad and we do try to talk about both grandfather’s so that she has some connection. Our dayhome lady also passed away this year so we try to tell our 3-year-old that they are all in heaven together watching over her. It’s a tough concept to explain to her, especially when I don’t really believe myself.

    November 30, 2012
    • i think the biggest challenge in explaining death to kids is just what you mention, if you do not believe in an afterlife. i prayed for years after my dad died, that he would be taken care of in heaven, and i was a non-religious adult, so i understand that desire for comfort. i am so sorry for your loss.

      November 30, 2012
  13. Israel Askew #

    I know death is inevitable, but I still think its unnatural. Whatever that word means. It doesn’t feel right to die. I hate the thought of my kids coming to the realization of it. Well written post. I’m an old fashioned Christian and expect a resurrection, but still…

    November 30, 2012
    • it is refreshing to hear this perspective from a Christian. generally it seems that the Christians i know are more at peace with the idea of death than others, and i envy them that

      November 30, 2012
  14. Isn’t it surprising how a certainty such as death is surprising and confounding? There is something in our souls that wasn’t meant for death, it seems.

    November 30, 2012
    • right, because everything else we know is subject to change

      November 30, 2012

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