There are three notable things about my father's childhood: He slept in a crib sometimes until the age of 8 because every time a relative came to live with them, he was forced to give up his bed. When he attended a Yeshiva, his mother sent him to school with salami and cheese sandwiches, making him the laughing stock of the cafeteria (Kosher laws forbid mixing meat and dairy). And, because his parents had him late in life, he spent much of his childhood fearing they would die soon.
My 6-year-old son has a similar fear.
"How can you stop from dying?" he once asked me.
"You don't want to die?" I asked.
"No," he said.
"Well, that's good. Life is good, right? I know I think so," I said, trying to counter previous comments he's made about life "not being good for him."
"So, how do you not die?" he asked.
"Sometimes, you can take medicine. Or, you can try to live a healthy life, like eating lots of fruit and vegetables and vitamins," I said, not really believing it. I've got a healthy fear of death, myself. I was trying to put on a brave face.
"Yeah, but how do I make you not die?" he asked.
"Oh, me," I said.
"I don't want you to die, because I love you so much," he said.
"Well, I'm very glad about that. I love you very much, too, and I don't want you to die, either," I said. He has no idea how much this is true.
We had my son, Eddie, late in life, when I was 47 and my husband was 51. When he graduates from college, I'll be 65 and my husband will be 69—ages at which people retire to Florida, not buy their son his first car. Thanks to science, a woman of "advanced maternal age," as the fertility clinics so eloquently call it, can still give birth. But while science solved one problem, it created another: a child who fears his parents are going to die and leave him.
Sure, plenty of people are having children in their 40s these days and people say I look good for my age, Most people, that is—except little Dina or Jennifer or whatever the heck was the name of that little 9-year-old at the beach club last summer, where I took my son during a heat wave.
"Are you his mother?" she asked.
"I am," I said.
"Oh. I thought you were his grandmother," she said, and swam off to attend to something vitally important, like fixing her hair clip.
I may not be his grandmother, but when I die, he'll still be that young age at which children lose a grandparent. He'll be too young to have reconciled himself to the notion of life without parents. And so while I love my son to pieces, I sometimes wonder if it's too much. I don't want him to miss me like I miss my father, who died unexpectedly in 2001 at the age of 62, after a short bout with cancer.
My father and I used to speak every Sunday, talk about our lives, our careers, our insecurities. He was my father and my biggest fan. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I wept until my eyes swelled. When he died 10 months later, I didn't shed a tear. I buried the loss like a killer buries a body, so far down that no one can find it.
My father was 48 when his mother died. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 80 and opted not to treat it. It took three years for the disease to take hold of her body like rebel forces laying siege to a town. She moved into our house. As the months went on and she grew weaker, she stopped eating and my father's sadness grew. Fearing his mother was giving up, he pulled a vitamin out of a jar and held it out.
"Here! You want to die? Take this. It'll kill you," he said.
He wanted her to get angry and fight. She grabbed the pill and popped it in her mouth. My father got angry and started stomping around the kitchen like a 3-year-old before storming out of the room. My grandmother went into the hospital a few days later and never came out.
My son asks me about death a couple of times a week now. He sees it in everything we do.
"ET didn't die. How did ET get better?" my son asks.
I remind him of a scene in the movie when the flowers came back to life, and how ET could heal things, like Elliott's finger.
I thought he would ask whether humans could come back to life, like the flowers, but he was on to other things. He seems to orbit death but in a wide flight pattern, coming back to it and then moving away, like a boomerang that you think is lost until it returns.
My mother used to sing me a lullaby that I started singing to my son:
Loo loo loo loo loo, hush-a-bye,
Dream of the angels in the sky,
Loo loo loo loo loo, hush-a-bye, Mommy won't go away
Sleep in my arms while you still may
Childhood is but a day
Even when you're a great big boy
Mommy won't go away.
Every time I would sing it, my son would say, "Are you going to die?"
"Someday," I say.
"Will you die before me?"
One night, he asked if he was going to die.
"One day," I said.
"I don't want you to die before me, because I love you so much, and I don't want to be with someone else," he said.
But I watch the grieving process unfold, as he then says, "If you die, who would be my mudder?"
He wanted to know if he could get another one. I told him by the time I die, he'd be old enough that he won't really need a mudder. I knew that wasn't true. I remember being in college when I looked at my father's face as he was driving me and my mother down to Key West, and I noticed a small spot on his cheek. I was suddenly stricken with grief at the thought that he might have skin cancer and die. I was old enough to know that parents die and kids are able to live on without them, but my heart sank.
There's a photo on my son's bookshelf of my father, who is then 3, and his mother. He's looking straight ahead and has a ball in his hand. His mother is kneeling on the ground next to him, looking up at him adoringly. She probably loved him more in that moment than anyone ever could. There are now photos of me like that with my own son. In one photo, we were picking peaches and I'm holding my son upward to reach a fruit that dangled high on a branch. In it, my arms look flabby, like my grandmother's did, but my smile, as I look at my son, is also the same as hers. And I think that's part of the pain, in losing a parent, is knowing we will never be loved like that again.