My four-year-old son, Rhys takes me by both hands and leads me to the couch, where we sit, side by side. He looks at me solemnly, earnestly. Still holding my hands, he gazes deep into my eyes and says, “Okay, Mom, now we’re going to talk about when your mom died.”
And so we go through the story, again: how my mom was sick, very sick, with a disease called cancer. Not sick like bronchitis or an ear infection or a cold, where you get better. A different kind of sick that she couldn’t get better from. And that she was very tired of being so sick. So all her family came to visit her and they got to see her and tell her how much they loved her. And then she closed her eyes and she died.
“And then what happened?”
And then lots of people came to say goodbye to her and tell us, her family, how much they loved her and how wonderful she was.
“And you were sad?”
Yes, I say. I was very sad.
And then I tell Rhys how he and my mother never met, but that he was just a tiny baby inside my belly when she died, and that she was so happy to know that he was going to be born. Which he was, three days after what would have been her 60th birthday. And that the reason his name starts with R is because her name did, too.
“You miss your mom?”
Yes, I say. I miss my mom. I wish that she could have met you and Theo. She would have loved you so much.
I tell the whole story from the neck up, a technique I’ve practiced for getting through these conversations. It helps if I don’t have to look at Rhys — or, God forbid, at my partner, Rachel — directly in the eyes the entire time but can focus instead on some spot in the distance just above his head or, if necessary, his eyebrows. It helps that the story is of necessity simplified.
Because if I got into the details, if I let the telling sink down to heart level, things might get a bit overwhelming. Not just for a four-year-old who is just beginning to wrestle with the concept of death and its finality, but for his mothers, who still struggle with the fact that Bubbie Ruthi is never coming back, no matter how good we are or how long we wait. I can’t yet tell Rhys that the death of my mother remains my life’s biggest heartbreak, that I have to refrain from making Faustian bargains in my head about what I’d trade to have her back, to be able to call her to report each milestone, to tell her what we’re making for dinner.
I don’t mention that she had cancer three times and that the first time she got sick I was nine years old. I don’t tell him that her funeral was standing-room only. I don’t say that the reason her entire family came to see her was that Rachel and I were supposed to be married that morning — a hastily thrown-together ceremony meant to outrun the course of her disease. And that she must have known, because she was that classy, that the two events — a wedding and a funeral — needed more than a day’s space apart. I don’t say that, in fact, she died and then I closed her eyes. I just say that I miss her. And that I was very sad.
And then Rhys pats my knees, rises from the couch, walks over to Rachel, sitting on a black leather chair, squeezes in beside her, and takes her two hands in his. “Okay, Mom,” he says. “Now we’re going to talk about when your dad died.”
He’s been doing this often in the last month or two. And we tell him our stories. And it all percolates, until a few nights ago, when, sitting in a black leather chair, he said, seemingly out of the blue, “What if you die?”
And I said the only thing I felt I could say in that moment: “I won’t.”
Of course, we’ve had conversations since then, conversations about how everybody dies one day, but that most people die when they’re very, very old. About how Rachel and I won't die until we're very, very old and Rhys and his brother, Theo are old enough to take care of themselves. About how if anything ever happened to me and to Rachel — which it won’t, but just in case — that we know who will take good care of him and of Theo, where they would live, what they would eat.
I can’t guarantee that I’ll keep my promise. But I don’t think Rhys is old enough yet to handle the thought of my death, or of Rachel’s, as a conditional maybe.
And I don't think either of us can handle, at least not yet, telling the full story. At least, not the one at heart level.