Category: death

He was six months younger than me. He died, and I cannot understand it.

H’s head is on my breast, right hand curled in a tiny fist resting near his face, foot hooked over my thigh. I work hard at memorizing the weight of 27.6 pounds resting on my body, the warmth of it, the exact points at which our bodies meet. A desperate desire to hold on to this moment – no, to this life – seizes me. My stomach knots. I feel there is not enough air in the room to breathe. I am drowning, or I am suffocating, and it is taking me further and further from this moment and from peace.

He once boasted that you could build a kit aircraft using just the tools I saw hanging in front of us on a 3’ x 4’ peg board. They were arranged with fastidious neatness, with the kind of care you give to something you love, and it was impressive. I took a picture.

H’s heart beats against my stomach, our bodies press into one another as our lungs fill, the gap between us when we exhale barely perceptible. I want this moment to go on forever, so much that my insides are still tightly wound. I feel I will burst from the tension, the cells of my body exploding into the air like a mini Big Bang. I breathe. I surrender. I won’t remember everything, maybe not even this moment with H. I know in the deepest part of my soul that to hold on to life with feverish desperation would be to strangle it, that I can’t bottle it all up for always, that there is no forever. This impermanence is simultaneously crushing and liberating, and I lean into it now, trying to find the places in it that feel comforting.

He was singing karaoke when I walked into the bowling alley in Seattle. Jeremy by Pearl Jam. He was a good singer, but it’s not a song with an easy melody. Yet there he was, up on a small stage, pins crashing in the background, belting out the words as if he were a rock star on a stadium tour.

H’s tongue clicks as he loses and finds his latch, his body twitches as it falls into sleep. We both breathe. In. Out. In again. I think about human consciousness, about our ability to observe nature, about how beautiful and amazing it is that evolution has created a being that can gaze back upon itself and all that exists. I wonder what lies beyond this pinnacle achievement and come up at a loss, not for lack of believing there is something greater, but for lack of imagination. What will happen to us next? Who will we become? I do not know. It seems cruel, in a way, to have knowledge of our mortality, to know that awareness as we know it will end, to not know with certainty what lies beyond death. Cruel. And yet a gift. Would we experience the awe and majesty of life the same way if there were no mystery? Would we know to hold it so close, in gentle, loving embrace, if it were not so fragile? What would we search for if there were no need to search for meaning?

He took me up in a plane built from those tools on the peg board. It was a two-seater, just me and him and the exhilaration of having so little separating us from the sky. I think I could be making the memory of this up, so I ask a friend. I distinctly remember standing on the runway and watching them speed away from me, growing smaller as the plane ascended higher and higher into the bright blue sky. This friend told me I flew, too.

H’s leg is bent, femur falling from his hip, ankle held up by my thigh, a perfect V. His breathing slows, the pause between sucks grows longer. I take stock of what I know. H is here. I know him, and I am getting to know him. It is a privilege, and it makes me a better human being. So it is with myself and all of you and him. I am here. You are here. He was here. He will always be here. I know myself, and I am getting to know myself. I know you, I am getting to know you. I will always know him, it was a privilege, and it has made me a better human being. I think about what I believe. Life is taken from us with painful regularity, but it is not the end. Love and the heart defy death to render any of us forgotten. We are all part of something that reaches back far before our existence in this form and will likely stretch on for a long, long time after we have gone. We all matter. I breathe. I surrender. I didn’t want the reminders of what I am feeling so acutely now. I would rather have him here than have the veil parted for me for this brief moment. The pain is exquisite. The fragility of life is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.

He hugged me like he meant it. No back patting, no space left between our bodies, no hesitation or tentativeness. The intimacy of it could feel startling, at times, but it was also grounding. How else to learn to be all in than to experience it with someone who knew to move through the world like that? I know he meant it, all of it, everything he did. There has been a flurry of sharing memories of him, and I witnessed for the first time a moment that occurred more than twenty years ago. We were 18, just babies in so many ways, standing on the precipice of all that was yet to come. ‘What are you planning on majoring in?’ he was asked by a voice off camera. ‘There are so many things. Just so many things that I’d like to do. You know? I’d like to tell you about them,’  he said. I could hear the self-assuredness in his voice when he said it. He wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t cocky either. He was excited, optimistic, confident. And he did it, so much. He did so, so much with his life. He meant it. He was all in. Whatever comes next, I’m sure he’s all in for that, too.

***

In loving memory of Jeremy Monnett, June 12, 1974 – June 2, 2015.

“There’s a dead pigeon ahead,” my mom points. We stop when we reach it and huddle around the corpse.

“Why is the pigeon dead?” H asks.

“His body stopped working, sweets. That’s what happens when a person or animal dies,” I explain.

“How did the pigeon die?” H asks.

“I’m not sure, my love. I didn’t see it happen. I could guess,” I tell him.

“Guess,” he says.

“Maybe he was injured somehow. And it looks like he got run over by a car. Maybe he was injured by a hawk, and then a car ran over him. I’m not sure though.”

The pigeon’s entrails spill onto cracked grey asphalt. Bloody tire tracks begin three feet from the dead body and quickly fade away.

“He was injured by a hawk. A car ran him over,” H repeats, solidifying the story.

“Poor guy,” my mom says. “So sad.”

“Why is the pigeon sad?” H asks.

“I don’t know if the pigeon is sad or not, sweets. I don’t know how animals feel after they die. But I know that people who are still alive usually feel sad after someone they love dies.”

I contemplate the pigeon viscera spilled out of the gash in its chest. The feathers around its shut eye are dirty and matted, and although its head is not obviously smashed, it seems misshapen. The pigeon is lying on its side, one wing draped over its body as it would have been in life, the other at an awkward angle, obviously broken.

I point out the organs to H, wondering aloud what each of them might be. I can see clearly its intestines, and also maybe a heart or a kidney. We talk about how the pigeon’s insides have come out, how that can make a body stop working. After we have talked for a while, H becomes interested in his original target, a gate at the far end of the parking lot we are standing in. He tugs my hand in that direction.

“H opens the gate!” he informs us. “Grandma, don’t open the gate!”

“I will not open the gate,” my mom assures him.

H opens and closes the gate several times, maybe studying the mechanics of the thing, maybe enjoying the labor involved. He insists on locking the gate after awhile, and I anticipate going home.

“See the dead pigeon again,” H requests instead.

We walk back across the parking lot hand in hand and stand over the pigeon.

“Why is the pigeon dead?” H asks.

“His body stopped working, sweets. That’s what happens when someone dies. Now the pigeon will become part of the earth in a different way.”

“Will he fly again?”

“No, sweets, he won’t fly again. His body stopped working and his wings, too. He won’t be able to fly anymore,” I say gently.

“Why is the pigeon sad?” H asks again.

“I’m not sure if the pigeon is sad or not. But I would be sad if someone I knew died. People who are alive can experience sadness when someone dies. I’m not sure about the person or animal who died though. I don’t know what they feel.”

We turn to walk home.

Later, in bed, H takes a book we have just read and pushes the spine up and down on my chest.

“What are you doing, sweets?” I ask.

“I am cutting mama,” he tells me matter of factly.

“You are cutting mama,” I repeat to him. Something about this makes me think of the dead pigeon. I am not exactly sure why.

“I am cutting mama. Then I will sew you back up,” he informs me.

“Then what happens?” I ask.

He answers my question with one of his own: “Why is the pigeon dead?”

“Oh. The pigeon is dead because something happened. Either he was killed by a hawk or by a car. Something happened that caused his body to stop working.”

H accepts this without comment. We read another book.

When I am done, he asks, “Will someone fix the pigeon?”

“Oh, sweets. No. No one can fix the pigeon. When a body is so broken like that it is dead, and it cannot be fixed anymore. Sometimes when things or people or animals break, they can be fixed. Sometimes they can’t be fixed, but they still live. And sometimes they are broken so badly they die. The pigeon was already dead when we saw him. Nobody would have been able to fix him anymore.”

“Why not?” H is curious.

“That is a very good question,” I tell him.

We are both silent.

“Would you like to sing a song for the pigeon?” I ask.

“Yeah,” H says quietly and requests that we sing the pigeon’s name.

“Pih, pih, pih, pigeon. Pigeon, pigeon, pigeon,” I sing softly. “Pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pigeon.

The tune is Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

I begin humming after several rounds, watching an LED light lying on the floor loop continuously from red to green to blue to white to pink to teal to yellow and around again, throwing color on an abstract painting composed of blues and oranges hanging on the wall opposite the bed. The orange parts of the painting are obliterated by the light when it casts cool greens and blues, and I can see the beginnings of everything in the dark, murky rectangle that is left. In the next moment, the orange parts of the painting are set ablaze, hotter and more alive than in the natural light of day. They glow when the light on them turns red or yellow, heat and warmth seemingly generated from within the painting itself, the orange parts dancing like the kind of fire that mesmerizes, like the kind that would turn on you if it were not contained, destroying and purifying as it devoured what it could. From a distance, it is beautiful. From a distance, it is safe. H drifts off to sleep.

We came upon a caterpillar on our walk through the parking lot this morning. It was lying on the pavement, unmoving, glued to the ground in the place its insides had been squashed out.

“Pet him,” H said, squatting down next to the caterpillar.

I kneeled down, too, and pet the caterpillar while H looked on. I waited for him to reach out his hand, but he held back, observing me instead.

“Pick up. Mama pick up,” H said, looking earnestly at the caterpillar and then at me.

“You want mama to pick up the caterpillar?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” H’s whole body bounced in assent.

“He’s dead, sweet pea. See, he’s not moving.”

I lifted what I could of the caterpillar from the pavement. Its body was limp and pliant. There was no wiggling, no curling up on itself, no resistance to being encroached upon. I felt uncomfortable poking and prodding at the dead body, as if I were disturbing its peace.

“He’s dead. Not alive. Maybe he got run over by a car or maybe he got stepped on. His insides are all smooshed out. He’s not alive anymore. He’s dead.”

I pointed to the yellow ooze pinning one end of the caterpillar to the ground. I wondered if the caterpillar’s guts looked as yellow and formless on the inside when it was alive as they did now on the pavement. I thought about our guts and viscera, about consciousness, about what it is that animates us, about my own discomfort with death and dying.

“Not alive,” H repeated my words and nodded in the way he does when he is working at understanding something. “Dead. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive.”

“Yes. He’s dead, that’s right,” I said.

H stood up and took my hand. We wandered a bit away.

“He broke,” H said.

“Yes. He broke. That’s right.”

H pulled me back to the caterpillar, and we stood over it in silent contemplation before he was ready to move away again.

We continued to talk about the caterpillar for a while, in-between talking about other things, H coming around to our beginning points again and again as he turned over the idea of death.

“Dead. Not alive. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive. Smooshed. Dead. He broke,” he told me, nodding with each declaration. We traversed the parking lot, me repeating his words back to him and elaborating until he moved on to other topics.

How often he stuns me with the connections he makes and the ways he verbalizes his ideas. We had talked about death before, and we had talked about broken before, but putting those two concepts together was wholly his own. It is easy to forget when knee deep in diaper changes and tracking how much he is or is not eating and facilitating sleep and worrying over how to best support him through gross motor delays that there are bigger, philosophical questions turning over in his brain, the kinds of questions that require us just to be, to wander, to be outside, to explore, to happen upon things we don’t necessarily know we need to experience, to have the time and space to reflect and talk and wonder about the world around us. It can be easy to forget that these things are important, too.

I once read that human consciousness is nature’s way of gazing upon itself in all of its forms, an idea that has poetic resonance for me even if it is not strictly, scientifically true. I like how it knits us to everything that is alive, from the smallest, simplest organisms like bacteria and algae, to our nearest genetic relatives, the great apes. I like that it acknowledges our oneness and connection with the universe; we may be different from plants and other animals, but we are not separate. I like the responsibility implied; we are able to see the whole in a way that everything else likely cannot and with that ability lies the possibility that we might think beyond ourselves to find ways to care for the earth and all of her creatures. I like that the reach of our awareness is part of what allows us to grapple with questions about the meaning of life, about what consciousness is, about the meaning of death. Asking these hard questions, even if they remain unanswered, adds richness to our experience.

What a gift it is to watch a new consciousness gaze upon nature and develop theories about the big things in life, and what an honor to walk beside him as he does.