My girls and I were on our way to the south side of town for a gingerbread-house-making party.
We had fifteen minutes before the party and Oak Hill cemetery was coming up on the left. A few months prior, we had lost a good friend. One of the best. It was the girls’ first real experience with death, and I knew that they were still working hard to understand (as I was). I glanced in the rearview mirror. The little one was asleep, her head sideways. The older one watched as the world went by her window. As always, she was deep in thought.
“You want to visit the cemetery?” I asked her.
“Yes!” She said, as though she had been waiting for months. And maybe she had.
We pulled in and followed the narrow road to the right. I recalled the first day I had come back, the day I couldn’t find the place and panicked, pacing among the plots.
My older daughter barely waited for me to stop the car before bursting through the door and into the autumn air, shouting, “This cemetery is beautiful!” She was right. The late afternoon sun shone through the branches of the oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, and the headstones glittered with light. Flowerpots wrapped in colored foil and fresh Christmas wreaths tied together with red velvet bows decorated the granite monuments.
The girls followed me to his spot. Georgia brushed a dried leaf away from his nameplate and read it aloud, stumbling on the pronounciation of his middle name. She was hesitant; she wouldn’t stand near the rectangle of grass whose color didn’t quite match the rest. Jane, on the other hand, stepped right on top of it. She squatted down and began to pull up the sod. Georgia’s eyebrows arched with panic. “Mommy!”
“Jane, honey, you can’t do that. You have to leave the grass where it is.”
“Well, I want to see his face.” She marched off his grave and crossed her arms. “I miss him,” she said. Me too.
I tried explaining to her, again, what happens when we die, how our bodies are put into a box and buried in the ground, and how our souls go up to heaven. And then I realized how horrifying it must have been — the very idea of separating soul from flesh, of being trapped underground — to a not-yet-four-year-old, a child who didn’t really know what “die” meant. What she knew was that she wouldn’t see her friend again. Not here, anyway. And maybe that was enough.
Back inside the car and on the way to the party, she talked again about his face. I told her that we could go home and look at pictures, that she could see his face. She said, “But I can’t hear him talk.” And I cried. Maybe she understood better than I had thought.
On Thursday night, we drove home from my dad’s, and for whatever reason, I asked my children if they knew how much I loved them. It had been an especially sad day at school for one of my students, and that made it a sad day for me; maybe that’s what prompted it. Jane said, “But someday you will die and I will miss you.” I reminded her that even if I died, we would see each other again eventually. And Georgia said, “But how would we see each other? We won’t have eyes in heaven. You said we don’t have bodies in heaven.” And I decided that death is entirely too complicated, and that we’ve had too much of it this year.
So on Friday morning, when someone decided to make so much death happen all at once, I decided that I wouldn’t tell my children. That death was too much on their minds already. In their world, people are good, classrooms are safe, and our loved ones die because they are sick. This is their understanding. And I’m not ready to take that away from them.
Maybe, ultimately, I will regret this decision. But I know my children. And I know what they do with sadness. So right now, as I watch them chase each other through the house and its piles of Christmas decorations, I’m relieved that their faces are not lined with worry.