What If You Don’t Like the Earth?
My four-year-old daughter, after a lengthy interest in pregnancy and birth, has now turned her considerable attention to death. I thought I might have had a couple more years up my sleeve, some time to think of really simple yet profound sentiments about life and loss, but recently, driving back to the house we stay in when we’re visiting Australia, she suddenly said, ‘when are we seeing Great Pa? We haven’t seen him.’
We hadn’t seen Great Pa because Great Pa, my Pa, died at the end of 2017. He was 97 years old and had met my daughter when she was four months old but had never met my son. We were due to fly out to Australia three weeks after he died, and their meeting was on the agenda. But Pa had, since I first told him I was pregnant, sent cards and presents, and my daughter has a photo of him holding her as a baby in her room. She knew of him mostly through stories and photos and the musical card that sang Let it Go; but she knew him, and she knows, also, that trips to Australia mean seeing Australian family and this trip, we hadn’t seen Great Pa.
‘We won’t see Great Pa this trip sweetheart.’
(The ‘why’ phase didn’t end in our household.)
‘Because Great Pa died.’
The verb ‘to die’ was one she had heard in passing, here and there. The fish we had bought at the pet shop on our last trip to Australia, for example, and put in Nana’s pond, had died. Some snails on our daily walks to kindergarten were found dead, and in one of her books, the farm dog rolls in a ‘dead thing’. There was a pause. I wasn’t quite sure if she was going to ask me what it means to die, or if she was rustling around in her vocabulary for the word and quickly holding it up to the light to examine.
‘But I want to see him die.’
Ah ha. Seeing is believing.
‘Well he died a while ago, you can’t see him die.’
‘But when are we going to see him?’
Ah ha – the permanence of death, a concept too big for them, its width and breadth unknowable and in being so, protecting them from fear, from the profound, fundamental sadness of death. I know that will come – the understanding of ‘forever’ – and I know with it will the full weight, barely bearable. But not now.
‘We won’t, darling, he’s dead.’
‘Why did he die?’
‘He was very old, and he got sick and his body couldn’t do it anymore.’
She thought about this for a moment; I could hear the cogs turning. Who else did she know was very old? A ha.
‘But Great Nana is not that old.’
My Nana is 92. She has dementia and doesn’t really remember who I am. She calls my children ‘the little Germans’ and their pictures I have sent her are all through her house. We visit her when we’re in Australia and she always has biscuits or chocolate. But we slip through her fingers, through the cracks in her memory, even as we stand in front of her, talking. She holds me for a moment and then I am gone.
‘Well, she’s pretty old.’
‘Dann wird sie auch gleich die-en.’
‘Yes, she’ll die soon.
I was considering adding something to that statement, something like ‘but she’s healthy’ or adding criteria to her understanding of death even though young people die all the time and healthy people die all the time, when she said, in German:
‚Aber es gibt nicht wenn Menschen sterben.‘
She also might have said:
‚Aber es gibt nicht wann Menschen sterben.‘
If it were the former, and I had to translate it, I think she meant something like, ‘but there is no such thing as dying.’ Bullish refusal to accept something as fact is what she does rather well. If it were the latter, it was something more like, ‘but there is nothing when people die.’ Both comments are accidentally philosophical and my husband – the German speaker – and I were trying to figure out what she had meant when the next, inevitable, question came.
‘Can we die?’
A few days before we were due to fly home back to Germany, and not long after death had entered our daily discourse, the kids’ Uroma – their father’s grandmother – was taken to hospital. Diabetes, a bad heart and years of ill health had brought her to the end. She refused an operation that might have given her a year or two more and asked for no medical intervention: she wanted to die in peace. A couple of days after we landed, we got in the car to go and see her; the doctors had given her hours and it was time to say goodbye. We explained to the children we were going to visit Uroma in the hospital because she was very, very sick. As it turned out, the children were only allowed to wave through the glass; they carried too many potential germs to be let any further into the intensive care ward. They waved and blew kisses, asked why their uncle was suddenly a doctor (he wasn’t, he was simply scrubbed up) and got given huge syringes and glove balloons by the nurses on duty.
In the car on the way home, my daughter casually asked when Uroma was going to die, ‘like Great Pa.’
I told her the truth: ‘probably soon.’
Uroma staged a brief comeback, long enough for her grandsons to visit a couple more times, and for the hospital to move her back to her nursing home, where she turned the TV on and refused oxygen. She no longer inhabited a well body and she hated the operations and medication and interference. She simply wanted to go. She died the day after being released, at eighty-three. She was my daughter’s age when war was declared. She screamed in the bunkers as the bombs fell on Kiel and was sent down south to wait out the last two years of the war. Her parents left her down there, well after the war was over, visiting her once in the almost ten years she was apart from her family. That separation haunted her and her relationships for the rest of her life. She was a member of a generation on its way out, a generation whose parents watched a madman come to power and bring the world to its knees.
We told the kids the following morning. No euphemisms. With my daughter’s burgeoning interest and Oma’s illness, I had started reading bits and pieces about talking to children about death. Everything said to give children straight, honest answers. Uroma had died. My son, at two, had absolutely no idea what we were talking about, but my daughter and her newly developed interest in how and why we die, watched us carefully. She knew it was sad, instinctively, knew she had to cuddle us. She looked at us both as we spoke and after a minute, pulled a sad face, perhaps mimicking our own. I observed her, in those moments, and realised she was alert for input on how to handle what was clearly a big moment. She was taking her cues from us – sadness, first and foremost – and looking to see where the lines were being drawn.
Then came the questions.
‘What is happening when we die?’
I don’t know. No one knows. I grasped at the first solid fact I had, ‘well, we can bury people –
‘Yes, like in the earth.’
‘What if you don’t like the earth?’
‘Well, when you’re dead you don’t really notice it, I suppose.’
I was, clearly, and as one does with any if not all aspects of parenting, winging it. Children are so thirsty for information, they hunger for knowledge of how the world works and their place in it. The more they know, the clearer the boundaries, the safer they feel, the less disordered and chaotic the world seems. I had no idea if my talking about burying people was going to birth a fear of gardens, or if she was going to go looking for dead people each time she came across a flower bed – but I had to give her something.
She smiled suddenly. ‘We can bury you when you die.’
That evening, she woke up a couple of hours after going to sleep. She was restless and emotional, and eventually described it to me as, ‘Mummy, I feel a little bit crazy.’ Her mind was too full, so I told her to ask me all her questions she had and they came rushing out – questions about kids at kindergarten, about when she can start horse-riding lessons and, eventually, about Uroma.
‘Can we bury her in our garden?’
‘There’s already a big garden people get buried in.’
‘What is Uroma dreaming in her dive?’
It takes me a moment to realise she has made a new noun, a place name, from ‘die’. Oma has died and is thus in her dive.
‘Well, I don’t know. Perhaps she’s dreaming about cake? Uroma loved cake.’
Over the next few days, we talk a lot about dying. She tells me she doesn’t like it when Great Pa and Uroma die, she asks when we are going to die, tells her father that ‘children can also die’. I read more, about handling death and funerals with young children, and everything keeps coming back to honesty and simplicity. Use the right words, take them to the funeral, let them be part of a family’s ritual. I read that children, small children, aren’t afraid of death and dead bodies like we are. We learn that, I suppose. My own mother always said no one spoke about people dying when she was growing up and she had no idea what was going on when members of her family died. My husband’s aunt frets a funeral is not the ‘right place’ for children. My mother-in-law sends us a pamphlet from the funeral house and it confirms what we think is the best way – bring the children, make them part of it, be honest with them. ‘Death after all,’ as a teacher at my daughter’s kindergarten tells me, ‘belongs to life.’ But mostly, I listen. I listen to what’s foremost on my daughter’s mind. There is so much to be learnt from listening to children, from answering their questions. I am forced to reach into my own worries, my own fears, and give her the straightest, clearest answers I can, and in doing so, ask myself – what do I believe? Not just about where we go, but about the numerous ways we live on, the rituals of loss, the point of it all. And how being a parent multiplies the consequences of one’s death – you are lost by those who came from you and they carry that terrible grief forever. When my first child was born, I joined the billions of parents who have gone before me in worrying hugely about what would happen to her if we died – who would she go to, who could bring her up like we would have done? Should she be sent to Australia or stay in Germany – both countries contain precisely one half of her family. If she stayed here, how would she ever get to know her other country? I worried about what would happen if I died before she was old enough to remember me. Who would I be, then? A memory, a handful of photos. Who would give her what I would have? I worried as much about me dying and leaving her in a world without me, as I did her dying. I had just produced an entire new life and yet death seemed so very close.
As the early years of parenthood went by, these thoughts receded somewhat, pushed to the back of the clamouring queue, squished by other concerns – am I showing them how to be kind? Am I teaching them enough, reading to them enough, yelling too much, expecting too much? But not too long ago, another thought popped, unbidden, into my mind: what should happen with my body when I die? Bury me, I thought entirely reflexively, in Australia. Bury me in the soil I came from, beneath the sky I know best. I thought about my body staying here, on the other side of the world, forever. Nearer, perhaps, to my husband and to my children – if they’re still here, but so far away from home. I don’t come from here – it was a childlike voice – I’ll be lonely. How would anyone from my Australian family visit me? How could I lie, forever, in a place I don’t come from? I see, I do, how this kneejerk reaction speaks to ideas of belonging I am still working through. And I also see, rationally, that were I am buried, or where I am tossed into the ocean, doesn’t matter – for I will be gone. But we return; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My uncle brought his mother’s ashes from Australia all the way over to the Frisian island she came from, the one she was born on and left for a different life in northern NSW. My Pa is in the ocean, the same one he used to float through waves backwards in, his grandkids shrieking, ‘behind you, there’s a wave behind you!’ My other Pa is in the soil of the land he spent the latter part of his adulthood on, near where his daughters and their children settled. We return our loved ones to where we think they belong: where do I belong?
Uroma’s funeral is on an early spring day. We sit in the front row and look at the wreaths spread out. They are elaborate things, each with a sash that has the name and message of the sender. Ours is a bright, spring-like affair of orange and yellow. The children are full of questions about how the ritual will play out. Why so many flowers? When’s the music starting? When’s the man coming to speak? Where’s the earth (for Uroma to be buried in)? And then, my son provides the Hollywood-esque sucker punch: in the quiet of the room, right before the speaker enters and stands reverently before the coffin, his little voice pipes up with, ‘where’s Uroma?’ Someone behind us lets out a sad, ‘oh.’
My husband points out the casket and explains that Uroma is in there. I know we agreed on simple honesty, but I’m worried about where this might go in the sad silence of an intimate funeral.
‘In there?’ My daughter double checks.
I brace myself for tears, for the next question of ‘can I see her’ or ‘can she get out’, but after a few moments of silence my daughter points and says, ‘and why are there flowers on top of Uroma?’
She is buried in the same cemetery her husband was, in the city she was born in. We are one less and have come out the other side of a parenting first. Death has now found its place in my daughter’s ever-growing encyclopaedia of how the world works and she will grow with it, as we all do, for it never leaves us. It will come to mean so much more than it does now, but I hope these early lines we have drawn will help her as the questions get knottier and the simplicity I can give her now becomes so much more complex.