(Originally published as a column in the AM News on Friday, April 18, 2014.)
It is the part of life that many of us only whisper about and parents often try to keep children protected from. Mine did. Because it hurts. But hurt is also part of life. Better processed when you’re not trying to make sense of it on your own as a kid, or dragging its shadows into adulthood.
I was six years old when my beloved maternal grandmother died suddenly. Something went wrong during a routine surgical operation that was meant to be just a couple-of-days-in-the-hospital procedure. I never got to say goodbye and no one else did because no one knew of what was to come.
When I was nine, my paternal grandfather passed away. I loved him dearly and had no clue about the long illness he was battling or about his impending death. I never got a chance to say goodbye.
As taxing as that would have been, it could’ve provided the kind of closure we need in order to process such events with grace.
My paternal grandparents died a few years later, and goodbyes were not said that time either.
My mom passed away suddenly eight years ago and though there was no typical goodbye, there was a premonitory conversation that included a farewell that had both closure of some sort and a good lesson in it.
My dad has been chronically ill for many years now and I have been given enough time to say some of the things people should say.
I had time to think of life as it slips away and appreciate its richness, its bittersweet flavor and its colorful shreds as I am trying to put them together to make sense of the tapestry we keep on weaving with every day that passes.
With my sons, I choose to celebrate both life and death. Choking on some words as they try to build themselves into sentences that describe life, understanding that they are becoming the very foundation we have to build today and all the tomorrows on, but most of all learning that appreciation of every day and of people we have around us can only be tangible if we are aware of both life and death as we go.
Withholding the reality of death from children is like not telling them of night because it brings darkness.
Giving ourselves and our children a chance to understand death and accept it helps us all appreciate life and better our ways as we go. It’s when we forget about the finality of it all that we can take it for granted.
My sons often play the game of ‘If you could have three magic powers, what would they be?’ and the one power I keep on pushing away from is to be immortal. It would make everything less worthwhile, I tell them.
They are puzzled every time. But think of all the things you get to do and never be afraid it all ending, they try to convince me.
But fear is, for once, an element that adds to life, I tell them.
If we choose to acknowledge it, it can guide us towards being grateful for every day as it comes and goes, and for people as they adjust their steps to match ours or walk in that tap-tapping cadence we share as we go through life, for as long as we do.
Awareness of an impending finality is what makes life precious. No season that lasts forever can bring the kind of joy that seasons as we know them do. Or sunsets. Or watching a child grow or sharing precious times with our loved ones.
We are strong in how we carry ourselves through life, in how we overcome challenges and in how we face new ones.
Knowing that everything ends somewhere adds the kind of humbleness that makes the journey worthwhile.
In building farewells as we go, we embrace time and people with all the gusto one can have knowing that we only have a limited time to make it happen. To make it last long after we’re gone. Because it will, as the ones we leave behind will carry it forward and make the best of it. Life, that is.