When the speaker announced my name as the winner of the Huffington Post essay competition, the feeling of elation may have eclipsed that which I felt at the birth of my children. Hell, it may have eclipsed the joy I feel when thinking of my own birth. Coming from a blogger, that is saying a lot. At some point my essay will appear on HP, but I wanted to share it here first as a special sneak peek; sort of a ‘thank you’ to my readers. Also putting it here first means my Google rankings are going to go through the roof. Enjoy.
“Girls, I have to tell you something about Uncle Bill.”
Uncle Bill was my husband’s 97-year-old Great Uncle. A rock star on the 1930s tool and die scene, he later became an unapologetic hoarder of machine parts when he retired. His basement was packed wall to wall with a bevvy of broken washing machines, deep fryers and pieces of push mowers and god help the person who dare lay a finger on any of it. Unless, of course, you were interested in buying something. Then he would happily part with whatever it was at a price only slightly above market value.
In his later years, his treasures expanded to things like sofa paintings and rotting bags of fruit that he “bought outright”. My Father-In-Law told me that once there were rumblings of an intervention, but Uncle Bill was old and the family decided they would wait him out. That was thirty years ago.
“Is it Uncle Bill’s birthday, Mom?”
“No, honey. It’s not his birthday,” I said, pausing to give myself a moment to figure out exactly how I was going to do this. They continued to mechanically shovel cereal into their mouths, oblivious to the bomb hovering overhead.
I carefully considered my approach. Should I ease into it softly, maybe with a speech about death actually being a beginning? The beauty of the universe? The wonder and glory of the mystery that is life? I looked at my watch and saw it was almost time for school.
“Girls Uncle Bill is dead.”
Three pairs of little wide eyes staring at me, cereal pocketed into their cheeks, frozen mid chew. A drop of milk dribbled from my four-year-old’s lip to the table. Silence, but for the wheels turning in their little heads.
This was my first big time parenting talk, if you don’t count the time my eldest walked out of the bathroom with two tampons stuck up her nose asking, “Is this right?” I didn’t know what to say next; this was as far as I’d practiced in my mind. Until this point, my kids’ only interaction with death was via Disney movies and three goldfish that we brought home from a wedding. I handled the goldfish by secretly flushing them and telling my kids we had been robbed while they were sleeping.
Finally, my five-year-old broke the silence:
“Who’s Uncle Bill?”
“The old man at Thanksgiving dinner.”
“No that’s Uncle John. The other old one.”
“The one who fell asleep when he talked?”
“How did Uncle John die?”
“Uncle BILL. He was very old and he went to sleep and died.”
“When I get old I am never going to sleep.”
“Is Uncle John going to die?”
“Well, eventually. Because everyone dies, kids. Even me. Even you.”
Eyes widening even bigger, blood draining from their faces. Gears smoking from the speed of the wheels turning in their heads. I had accidentally taken this in a bad direction. Again, I looked at my watch.
“Okay, good talk girls. Please save any additional questions for after school. Now, tonight we are going to a funeral, and there will be something called a casket there. Inside the casket will be Uncle Bill’s body. His soul is in heaven, so remember that it will be just his body, nothing else.”
“If just the body is in the casket then what did they do with his head?”
“The head is in there too. Head attached to body. Head, body, the whole enchilada. Now finish your cereal. We’re late.”
Walking into the funeral home, I had the same ‘what could possibly go wrong’ mentality of a deer right before he leaps onto the freeway. After a few minutes of offering our condolences to my husband’s cousins, we meandered up to the casket.
“Mom! All his hair fell out!”
“GIRLS. For the last time. That’s Uncle Bill in there, not Uncle John.”
Eventually the novelty of a dead body wore off and my kids noticed the slide carousel projecting pictures onto a screen. Frankly I was happy to move on – you can only stare at a dead body so long before your mind starts playing tricks on you.
They used the projector to make shadow puppets and funny silhouettes on the wall. I considered telling them to cut it out but this had been a heavy day for all of us and I looked at their livlieness as a welcome distraction from the morosity of the night. I sat down on the couch and let myself begin to relax. This is what we defined in 9th grade lit class as, “The Tragic Moment”.
“Hey Mom! LOOK!” My five-year-old pointed across the room to something behind me. The way her eyes danced with a mixture of terror and excitement and the Oscar worthy gasp that came from the back of the room told me this was serious. I turned slowly, the same way someone might if they were brushing their teeth and heard something growling behind the shower curtain.
I don’t know exactly what I expected to see behind me, but it definitely was not a red headed three-year-old who had scaled her way up the kneeler, balancing by her stomach on the edge of the casket, using Uncle Bill’s forgiving stomach as a makeshift pair of bongos.
Over the low murmur of the crowd I heard her little voice.
“Ya put de lime in de coconut and drink it all up.” Her brow furrowed as she focused all mental energy on hitting his navy blazer in a freestyle two/four count.
As with most traumatic experiences, my life flashed before my eyes. It paused on a moment twenty years prior, to me sitting on my bed imagining how amazing it would be to one day have a perfect little family. There was no yelling. No ulcers. We had meaningful family talks. We could go in public without anyone defiling a corpse. At no point did it involve me working through a sketchy plan to remove my daughter from a casket without bringing down the whole house of cards.
I knew I needed a wide berth, so as not to spook her. Her instinct would be to flee, and in this case she would flee across Uncle Bill’s face.
It was when I neared the casket that I knew beyond a doubt that Uncle Bill was really truly dead. The alive Uncle Bill would never have stood for such shenanagens. It’s not that Uncle Bill didn’t like kids, but he definitely would not have been happy about laying there and entertaining a crowd using his body as an unwilling musical instrument.
I snatched her by her underarms and in one fell motion pulled her off the body and threw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She was startled and also upset I didn’t appreciate her performance.
“But I want to see Uncle Jooooooooohnnnnn!”
“For christ sake! UNCLE BILL!”
“Here,” I said, passing her off to my husband. “I have to run to the bathroom real quick to make room for the massive amount of alcohol I am about to dump onto my stomach.”
Having a moment to reflect, I realized what a difficult concept death is for a child to grasp. Being slapped in the face with such a harsh reality of life when up until now the entire world had bent over backwards to convince them of the reality of Santa and fairies and wishes coming true. If Santa is real, then magic is real, and why does anyone have to die? Their world is extremely complex, and sorting it all out is more difficult than I give them credit for. Feeding them the right amount of information to protect their fragile innocence and introducing them to the world is near impossible.
Walking out of the bathroom I found all three girls standing outside the door still as statues, eyes wide, blood drained from their faces as they stared at the man in front of them.
“Wow! Your girls are really quiet tonight!” Uncle John, brushing off the cold, marveled.
I patted his shoulder and smiled. I didn’t have anything left.
“They think you’re dead,” I said, heading for the door.
“Oh and whatever you do in there, don’t sing Calypso. It’s too soon.”