This is a piece I wrote almost 7 years ago. I sent it out to a couple of publications focused on motherhood, got a little interest from one, but I didn’t persist when they passed on it. Father’s Day 2019 seems an appropriate time to post here.
My four-year-old son S was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and wanted to pretend that it was poison and that he died but then in an instant, came back to life. It was a bright fall Saturday; sunlight filtered through the shutters of the dining room and warmed the hardwood floor under my feet. I played along like I always do. He took a turn, and then I took a turn at eating poison, dying, and then springing back to life. “I’m dead. Now I’m back!” we said, followed by his delighted, high-pitched laughter as he took another bite of his sandwich.
Then in an instant, the winds shifted and he changed tack: “Mommy, who is your daddy?”
“Harabuji.” [grandfather in Korean.] I’d talked with S about my father a few times before, shown him photographs, and I said, “you know who I mean, right? Do you remember?”
A nod. Then, “Speaking of things that are died, how did Harabuji die?”
The “speaking of . . . ” phrase, something he picked up from my husband, was a favorite segue that S was using with greater frequency and variety, linking things together at greater levels of abstraction. Not just “speaking of books, can we read my dinosaur book again?” or “speaking of cupcakes, I want a treat after dinner,” but “speaking of space, does it go on forever?” and now, speaking of the immutable and mysterious questions of the universe, what is this thing called death? Had the game been a mere pretext for asking about his grandfather, a way to ease into what he already sensed was a delicate subject?
“Well,” I began. My mind scrambled to figure out what to say and how to say it, trying to remember the bits of advice from articles and parenting blogs about talking to your kids about death in age appropriate ways. “He was very, very, very sick and his body stopped working and he died.” I added something to the effect that he wasn’t sick in the way we get sick, like with a cold or something, but something much more serious. I’d read somewhere that the “getting sick” explanation can cause unnecessary anxiety if kids think that they, too, will die if they get a cold.
S seemed to take this in. Next question. “Where is he now, Mommy?”
Deep breath. “Some people think you go somewhere else called heaven after you die, but we don’t believe that.” Even without having thought too much about it beforehand, I knew in the moment that I didn’t want to give him some consoling myth about heaven and the permanence of the soul. My husband and I are atheists, though I grew up attending church and my mother continues to pray for my well being. I wasn’t about to lie to my son just to make death less lethal, less than what it actually is. Sure, we support his belief in Santa Claus, but to misrepresent our beliefs about something so fundamental seemed just plain wrong.
My father was gone. I don’t talk to him as if he were looking down on me from somewhere; he doesn’t appear in my dreams as he does in my mother’s. But sometimes when I look at my children, I imagine them in my father’s arms, held by his broad, calloused hands, his deeply lined face beaming with his characteristic smile; I imagine his full-throated baritone laugh accompanying the melody of my boys’ giggles. I imagine him healthy and vigorous, the way he was all throughout my childhood and young adulthood. We – my mother, brother, and I – don’t talk about my father very often. I suspect, even after 12 years, it’s still too soon to draw attention to his absence when we’re all together. A three-legged dog doesn’t need to remind itself that it’s lame.
Once, shortly after S was born, my mother and I were laughing and marveling at some cute baby thing he was doing, and she said in Korean with a sigh, “Your father would have been so crazy happy . . .” “Crazy happy,” I echoed in English, nodding. My father was one of those men who are meant to be grandfathers. With adults, he had a quick temper and often couldn’t resist pointing out the flaws in their thinking or dispensing what he saw as much-needed advice, complete with wagging finger; but with children, he was gentle, patient, indulgent. In many ways, he was a traditional Korean man, a mix of Confucian and Christian values when it came to family, education, and social norms. But in other ways, he was an outlier: few would describe him as reticent or reserved; there was nothing distant about him. Unlike his three brothers or the men on my mother’s side, my father was openly affectionate with his children. Some of my grade school friends thought he was a bit scary because of his booming voice, but my brother and I knew he was a softie. My mother was the disciplinarian; my father hid pints of strawberry or mint chocolate chip ice cream from Baskin-Robbins in his coat pocket when he came home late from his 10-hour work days. He would have spoiled my boys rotten.
I explained to S in general terms that when we die, our bodies return to the earth, that we become dust again (“Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in wind”). I don’t know how much of this made sense to him. I could see that the answer wasn’t entirely satisfactory. But soon, his attention went elsewhere.
Later that night, after the kids were in bed, I asked my husband if he’d heard our conversation, worrying that I hadn’t gotten it right. He’d been quietly in the background while S and I talked and baby C was taking his nap. “You did a good job, honey,” he said.
But I continued to worry. I wanted S to feel he could talk about his grandfather freely, to ask all the questions that occurred to him. I wanted to share my stories about my father to convey a sense of the person he was, but I also didn’t want to burden my child with my own sadness. How could I express how much he would have been loved, without making him feel the loss of something he’d never known? I have so much grieving left to do.
A couple of weeks later, S and I were snuggled in his bed for story time, and his voice came softly in the dark. “Mommy, can we talk about how Harabuji died?”
“Yes,” I said. “What do you want to know?”
“How did he get sick?”
“Well, it was something in his brain. It started not working very well.” Here was another chance to do it better. I tried to choose my words carefully. “Sometimes when you get old, your body doesn’t work as well, and then eventually it stops working and you die.”
I could feel him trying to make sense of this notion of our bodies failing us. “Why did his brain stop working?”
“Nobody knows,” I said. Maybe I should have tried to come up with a concrete analogy, but none immediately presented itself. My father’s illness had been a mystery to all of us; even his neurologists could only give us probable diagnoses, nothing definite. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lewy-body disease – some of his symptoms overlapped with all of these, but the trajectory of his rapid decline didn’t line up neatly with any of them. All we knew for certain was that it was irreversible, incurable, the beginning of the end.
S said, “I told Ms. J that my mommy’s daddy named Harabuji died.”
“Oh, why did you feel like telling her that?”
“I don’t know. Because it’s interesting.” Already, at age four, there were things my son didn’t disclose readily. I knew pressing him with more questions wouldn’t get me very far. I made a mental note to maybe ask his preschool teacher, Ms. J, about this conversation next time I saw her. But that note got lost in the hectic bustle of waking hours and I never followed up. In the moment, though, what I wanted him to know more than anything was that the topic was a safe one to broach, that nothing was taboo.
Then he had more questions about what happened to the body after Harabuji died. I said Harabuji’s body had been turned back into dirt and scattered (“what’s scattered mean?”). He wanted specifics, so I explained: “After he died, we turned Harabuji’s body back into dirt and Mommy, Daddy, Uncle B, and Halmoni put the dirt back into the earth, we scattered it into water, a stream, and it floated away.”
“And then he came back to life?” he asked with a hint of hopefulness. If I’d been telling him a folktale, yes, of course, he would have come back to life. Water, dirt, the elemental compounds of being. Yes, I wanted to say. Yes.
“No. Once you die, you don’t come back to life.” I elaborated: “In our imagination, we can die and come back to life, but in our world, once you die, you don’t come back.” He’d begun distinguishing between the rules of reality (“our world”) and those of make-believe (“in Snake’s world, it’s summer”; in this world, all the monsters are friendly).
“So, Harabuji is gone forever?”
“So you will never have a Daddy ever again?” Rather than somber or fearful, his tone was almost triumphant, as in “I’ve made an important discovery!” and for that, I was grateful.
“That’s right,” I said. Pause. “But he lives on in my memory.” “Lives on” sounded misleading, so I tried again: “When we talk about him and remember him, then he can kind of live in our imaginations.” Was that better? “I can show you some pictures of Harabuji tomorrow if you want.”
Again, I felt like I’d missed the mark. Would it have been better to have asked him more questions? I’d refrained from saying that everybody dies, that it’s a natural part of life, because I didn’t know if he was ready to contemplate his own mortality. Scratch that. I didn’t know if I was ready to travel that existential terrain with my innocent child.
The next day, I opened the email that his preschool teachers sent to parents to give us a glimpse into our children’s day:
Eagles Note: Friday, Nov 2, 2012:
Today we spent circle time talking about the month of November. We talked about holidays this month including Day of the Dead or El Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Mexico where families celebrate their loved ones that are no longer with us. They feast and decorate calveras. We decorated our own skeleton masks to celebrate.
The word “celebrate” caught my attention. I could see the cheerful chaos of the Eagles’ classroom, eighteen children gathered around on the blue carpet for circle time, and Ms. J asking them, “does anyone want to tell us about a family member who is no longer here?” And there S would be, a head taller than his classmates, sitting cross-legged, probably near the back, raising his hand, and then announcing, “my mommy’s daddy named Harabuji died” with that serious way he has, lips slightly pursed, a gentle head nod, maybe feeling proud of his contribution to the celebration at hand.
I thought about our recent conversations. My son had coaxed me to talk about my dead father out of a curiosity piqued by his class’s Day of the Dead activities, and I wanted to honor that interest. Maybe I didn’t need to worry about choosing my words or finding the right analogy or protecting him from my sadness. S just needed to know about those hidden pints of ice cream. About how my father bought me the black and red boy’s Huffy bike, because that’s the one I wanted, and then taught me to ride it without the training wheels. About his love of world history and current events, and how he always rooted for the underdog. About how he hummed hymns on Sundays, the sound of his voice wafting through the house as he puttered after church. “Amazing Grace” was his favorite because that had been his mother’s favorite, his mother who had died a year before I was born. I want to tell my son, “he would have been amazed by you.”
Speaking of things that are died does draw our attention to what’s absent, but, as S seemed to know before I did, it can also be a way of reviving the dead who are always with us after all. Yes, my father died and yes, he’s still here.
2 thoughts on “Speaking of things that are died”
I love everything about this post. L is only 1.5, but I am trying hard to talk differently to her than I remember–simpler truth, less manipulation. She hurt the other day and I said only: “Does it hurt? I’m sorry” instead of “look at the birdie.” I’m not saying I got that right! But think I’m trying for something you get at here, a way to tell the truth without trying to shape the outcome. Thank you!
Thank you so much. “A way to tell the truth without trying to shape the outcome” – I love that formulation. There’s often so much worry and anxiety about telling the truth, but in the end, it seems better than any other alternatives.