By Courtney Quinlan
I remember making a conscious decision. It wasn’t hasty, I had thought about while he was probably still in utero. How do you teach a child about death? The right age, the right moment. Does it become a real-life lesson or is it just an abstract concept until something they’ve held and touched, perhaps loved, dies?
He was 3. He’s my only child and maybe I worried too much about him being in pain, maybe I wanted to prepare him as best as I could, from the moment he could learn about the inevitable parts of life. Maybe I thought that it was best to get used to the idea of things leaving and dying at a young age, because he wouldn’t always remember how he learned, it would be replaced by other memories, as his brain grew and more of the world seeped in. Better to not have death be a surprise.
It was a winter day and his cheeks were rosy from the cold. He loved watching fish in aquariums and we would often go to the pet store just to visit them. I decided we were buying a goldfish. I decided we were buying a goldfish because I knew they didn’t live long, because I knew their chances of dying sooner, with less attachment was a real possibility. It was the first time I had ever purchased a pet with its death in mind. I felt morose or sad, in a way because I knew this fish was the lesson. I also knew that it was best to begin with a pet he could like, or enjoy, but he couldn’t hold or touch this pet, there was still enough distance between them, that literal partition of glass. He named it Apple.
Apple was taken care of, fed – ok, maybe I missed a water change or two, but I took care of that fish. I didn’t buy it to kill it.
One day, after quite some time, Apple was seen swimming upside-down, sort of sideways. Apple got sick, with a disease not uncommon for household fish. We gave Apple medicine for days, we talked about what happens when a fish gets sick and then I said it was a possibility Apple might die. He looked surprised and I explained that if Apple died it wouldn’t be our pet anymore, just a body that couldn’t live and that we would need to dispose (in a fish grave) Apple’s body, because life ends. I had said, simply, plainly, but I told him – Life. Ends.
Several days later Apple stopped breathing. I went to get some toy or put some piece of clothing or something back in his room and Apple had died. Now was the time. I called him in. I sat him in my lap and I explained that apple was too sick to live.
“Too sick?”, he asked me.
“Apple’s body tried to keep living but it got too tired from being sick and just had to stop living. Apple was too tired to keep breathing.”, I told him.
I waited. I waited and held him in my lap and my eyes filled with tears because I realized I didn’t truly know how to explain or what to say, but the conversation had begun.
He turned to look at me and said, “Apple went to sleep? Apple not waking up.”
“That’s right sweet boy, Apple was too tired to live and Apple won’t wake up anymore. Apple is dead.”
He took a few steps and touched his little fingers to the glass, “Shhh, go to sleep now Apple.”
He came and sat back down in my lap and I asked him what he would like to do with Apple and if he had any questions he wanted to ask me.
He very calmly and serenely, almost as if he was in this world, one foot dipping into the next, told me, “It’s ok mama. Apple is sleeping now. He just needed to stop living and rest. He just wants to go home. He’s going home now. It’s a long way, but he’s happy to be going home. Don’t worry mama he floats to his home.”
I was stunned. I had never given him any preconceived notions of what death was or what happened to a body after it died, other than – it stopped. Being fairly non-religious and never choosing any sort of denomination, I never wanted to explain things to him that I didn’t know were true. And he was 3. He was 3 years old and had just learned of death and he thought of it as a beautiful journey home.
Isn’t that what the ultimate message is behind all death, it’s a roundabout way back to our beginning, back to our true selves somehow, back to the soul or the God you believe made you, or the new life you’ll travel into, back to your ancestors who invisibly wait to embrace you?
Apple had gone home. We drew him a picture and he asked me to write, “We will miss you Apple. We love you.” It hung on his wall for years.
Other fish were purchased and now he is 12 and experienced the true pain of losing. Only animal friends so far, but the kind you can hold and love, the kind he has special magic with. With forethought, he keeps tufts of hair of the animals he loves, and he has them in ziplock bags inside of a special wooden box. He knows now, that life is fleeting and takes a piece of it before it disappears, so he can always touch them and remember what they felt like and we write letters to put in their graves.
He’s never defined what home meant, not in that sense, and I’ve never felt the need to ask him. He has his rituals and he shares them with me.
So, when you ask me if something needs to burn in order to rise…
My answer to you is, yes. A 3 year old’s answer to you, is yes. Something must always be destroyed in order to grow, to rise up, to regenerate or rebirth itself.
Whether it’s a new way of thinking, or hair that needs to be cut, trim off the frayed and battered ends, a candle that needs to be lit, to be set on fire, before it glows, before the flame dances with oxygen.
To burn is a cleansing.
And end and a beginning.
In the natural order, Life springs from Death and so on, Death feeds Life.
First, you must burn, find your way home to begin the journey in order to rise.
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