‘If you both die then we will just watch DVDs’

2010-10-08 00:00

“POPPY has gone to the big doggy-heaven in the sky,” my husband’s mom explained to our children. “What I mean is he’s asleep and he’ll be asleep for a very long time.” She drew in a deep breath, agonising over how to break the news to her dear grandchildren: “He may not ever wake up again.”

“Do you mean,” they stared back, sympathetic but confused, “that Poppy is dead?”

I was over 34 before I suddenly realised that I would die one day. Walking through a cancer ward, pushing in a wheelchair the woman who had once pushed me in a pram; seeing the woman who had changed my nappies, now having hers changed; the woman who had spoon-fed me, messing her Purity food on her chin. I was plunged into panic: so death really does come to us all. One day this would be me. One day I would die, years would pass and soon no one would remember that I had ever lived. My great-grandchildren would probably not even know my name.

After a few weeks of dark despair I realized that if I’d grown up with death, it would probably have been less of a shock. I would have seen death as more of an eventuality, a full stop in the future that gave focus and priority to how I lived now, and not some dark bogeyman that would menace my body with lumps until eventually I gave in. So my husband and I resolved to make death a normal part of our children’s lives, an acceptable dinner-table topic.

Initially, five-year-old Joah panicked: “I don’t want to die, when will I die, how will I die?” But soon the anxiety faded and death became a helpful deadline on the horizon: more of a firm friend than a foe.

Seven-year-old Lael took it in her stride, seeing death as a battle to be soberly planned for.

But three-year-old Anna went one step further and was determined to swallow the bitter medicine of death, with a spoonful of sugar:

“If you die,” 7-year-old Lael said, as I put down the delicious crumpets and cheery pot of tea that I had been whipping up. “and then dad gets sick, finds that he can’t care for us and then also dies, will Auntie Nessie adopt us?”

“No,” Anna interrupted before I could answer. “If you both die then we will just watch DVDs.”

“Do you mean that you won’t need to be adopted, because you won’t need anyone to look after you, because you will be watching DVDs all day?”

“Yes,” Anna continued cheerfully, “and probably I will do the cooking, and,” she hesitated for a moment, savouring the many benefits that might come with death, “what happens if you don’t ever bath?”

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