My Son Realized Everyone Dies. Here's How I Responded.

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 
An orange balloon tied to a tree branch with an orange ribbon

“What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours. Melnick says the soul is immortal and lives on after the body drops away, but if my soul exists without my body I am convinced all my clothes will be loose-fitting. Oh, well…” —Woody Allen, Selections from the Allen Notebooks, Without Feathers

You’d think I would have been better prepared for my 8-year-old son Emmett’s first—and, dare I say, professional-grade—existential crisis. I have a black belt in worry. I could kick your mom’s ass in any “Did you pack a sweater?” contest, but mortality is my specialty. I saw Harold and Maude when I was 7, and since then I’ve mastered the art of whipping my head around, hoping to catch Death lurking just beyond my peripheral vision. I’ve always felt Him there, tapping His toe impatiently, checking His timepiece as He watched me at kindergarten graduation, taking my driver’s test, drinking at the senior formal dance, that time I was blinded by sulphur smoke on top of a volcano in Italy. If not Death himself, then whoever is in charge of a good maiming.

Parenthood did not suddenly trigger a latent carefree gene in me. It just made matters worse. Now I was the CEO of worrying, and it was my job to be on constant red alert, watching over two fragile earthly beings. I saw peril everywhere, but I tried to keep it to myself, mostly letting it play on a silent loop in my head. I wanted my children to develop their own neuroses, not simply inherit mine.

That night, Emmett, his younger sister and I were visiting friends in California. My husband was back in New York. We had just spent five days at a family reunion and gone full throttle for 14 hours at Disneyland. We had been on three flights, and this was the third place we’d slept in a week. We were exhausted, but no planes had crashed, no weird spiders had scuttled out of a hotel mattress and taken a bite out of anyone, and no one had slipped out of his or her harness on Space Mountain. Things were good.

It was past bedtime, and my daughter sawed logs on the sofa bed in the guest room. I was in the living room attempting to have a conversation with my dear friend, whom I see in person once every two years, if we’re lucky. Her daughter was sound asleep. I thought Emmett was in bed next to his sister, his legs tangled up in the sheets. The slap of bare feet on hardwood announced otherwise.

“Mom, I can’t sleep.”

“Emmett, you haven’t tried.”

“Yes, I have. I just can’t sleep.”

“You’ve been in bed for five minutes. That’s not ‘trying.’ That’s waiting until you can get up again.”

“But Mom—”

“Back to bed.”

“But Mom—”

“Back. To. Bed.”

Emmett’s sighs, foot stomps and outraged groans faded as he Dopplered back down the hall and into the darkened room. Five minutes later, he came out again. And then again. For an hour, he carved a rut into the floor, looping from the guest room to the living room and back. I was mad. I slapped down my stemless wine glass, shot my friend that Mom-à-Mom eye roll thing and huffed into the bedroom, ready to throw down.

Emmett sat upright in bed, knees pulled into his chest, eyes wide, face long and sad. He let out the sigh of a 58-year-old man whose balloon payment on his 7/1 ARM is coming due. I exhaled my frustration, squeezed in next to him, wrapped my arms around his bony shoulders and gave him a little scalp scratch. “What’s up, buddy?”

Before I continue detailing our exchange, I should give you a little backstory on this boy. Like my husband and me, he was born with a geriatric psyche. He taught himself to read at 3; devoured Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at 4; has been rushed to the emergency room, struggling to breathe, more times than I care to count, and has described his asthma as an “electric flying machine with blades in my chest”; once officiated a solemn goldfish funeral on our stoop; healthily processed what happened to Dumbledore; and lost two beloved grandparents by the age of 6.

When Emmett was 4, my father-in-law, with whom we had just spent Christmas, died of a heart attack on vacation. We took Emmett to Prospect Park, sat in the flat late winter sunlight, and explained to him that “Ba” had died, and he wouldn’t see him again. Emmett blinked a few times, then asked, “What happened to his body?” So we explained coffins and burial. Then he said he was hungry and we went home.

Things went okay after that, because Emmett had Nana. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Emmett was closer to my mother-in-law than he was to either my husband or me. My mom liked to say that they were best friends in another life. They got each other. Their snuggling and giggling—their connection—were delightful to be around. So, on Emmett’s sixth birthday, when I had to tell him that Nana was going to die because she had a tumor in her brain that we couldn’t stop from growing, even though it had just been discovered a few months earlier, his expression changed in a way I hope never to have to see again. It was as if his tiny, sharp-featured, big-eyed, smooth face grieved, hard and all at once, then pulled itself together and got back to the business of being a kid.

He asked where Nana’s body went, and we explained cremation. He said he didn’t think she was going to Heaven, because he didn’t believe in Heaven, but he hoped for her sake she did, because he knew she believed in Heaven. He helped us sprinkle some of her ashes into a small hole we dug at Ba’s grave, even rubbing the gritty pieces together between his fingers. Later, he sat on a rock in Lake Tahoe and watched my husband sprinkle a few more into the golden-hued water.

Emmett seemed cooler with mortality than I was. I am someone who has enjoyed fantastic health for most of her life (knock on wood), whose parents are chugging along in their late 70s and early 80s (again with the wood), whose grandma lived to 87—but who has spent a directly disproportionate amount of time wondering if today is the day I am diagnosed with a fire-breathing cancer that will render me mute and nearly lifeless by Friday.

That whole human condition thing is never far from my mind, which may explain why I wanted so badly to get back to my wine that night. I waited for Emmett to spill the beans on what had him tossing and turning, expecting him to register the usual “When can I buy Minecraft?” or “It’s not fair that [fill in the blank]” complaints.

“I don’t know if I should tell you,” he said, while his terminally happy-go-lucky sister snored and snorted beside him.

“You can tell me anything, bud. Are you upset about something?”

He hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. “I’m too embarrassed,” he muttered.

My parental antennae began to twitch. My son was about to tell me that someone horrible had done something hideous to him…bad touches, cruel teasing, face-in-toilet-bowl tormenting. You know the list. Let’s agree to pretend I maintained a neutral expression and calm tone.

“Did something happen that you want to talk about? It’s okay to tell me.”

Tears welled up in his eyes.

“It’s just that. I don’t know. I guess I’m just. I mean. I’m upset that one day everybody I love has to die.”

He waited, expectantly, for me to respond. And I did: I burst out laughing. Then, when I was done, I blurted, “That’s what you’re worried about?”

He nodded. He looked at me for a long moment, seemingly relieved to have gotten it off his chest, though not certain how he felt about my reaction. I pulled him in close, hugged him as tightly as I could—the kind of hug that’s like trying to fit someone inside your skin because you love them so much—and then I told him he was right. Everybody he loves has to die one day, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it.

“It’s sad though,” he said, almost like a question.

“Yeah. It’s the saddest,” I replied. “And it’s hard to get used to. But it’s true, and we can’t change it, so there’s all the more reason to enjoy every moment we have. We have to have lots of fun, and love each other a lot, and try really hard to be happy.”

This from the woman who lies in bed at night fearing that her children will run off the edge of the roof deck. The roof deck in the building she hasn’t lived in since 2011.

I have no idea why Emmett’s heart was heavy with that particular question on that particular night. Did I say the wrong thing? Probably. Did it help him? I don’t know. But speaking it out loud made me realize it was true: The hours will be long, our clothes won’t fit, but, oh, well. I’d like to think I did a pretty good job of telling Emmett about Nana. I think I did okay with sensing when he was missing her suddenly, six months and even a year later, when we would share a cry, get out some pictures and reminisce about her expert chocolate chip cookie making skills. I think my husband and I handled the reincarnation and some-people-like-to-have-their-bodies-burned-in-an-oven chats as well as can be reasonably expected.

But on that sofa bed on our summer vacation, I reacted like an awkward teenager—and, let’s face it, kind of a jerk—because Emmett was right. He wasn’t worried about the one-in-a-million odds of a stray electrical wire landing in a puddle of water that one of my children happened to be standing in, like I was. He was worried about the only thing we can all put money on: that someday we will be separated from each other. He was looking that hard fact right in the eye, while I had concocted a thousand ludicrous ways to look around, above, below and through it. He had put his small, young finger on the one thing we could never save each other from.

“Now get some rest.” We spooned for a few minutes, I kissed his ear, and he fell asleep.

I shuffled out to the living room, gave my friend a hug, and said good night. When I came back into the bedroom, Emmett had gone floppy, his hair a mess and his limbs flung every which way. I nudged my kids apart, curled up between them and, listening to the alternating rhythms of their steady breathing, stared at the ceiling for a long, long time.

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