Jun 122007

My father-in-law is quite a man. He grew up on a farm in rural Indiana, up from dirt. He worked demolitions in the Marines on various and sundry shit islands in the Pacific, with hundreds of Japanese soldiers trying their damnedest to make him dead at any given moment. He raised four daughters with his high school sweetheart, to whom he’s been married for more than 60 years. He helped put the shuttle in space before retiring from NASA. He helped me rebuild the privacy fence at his youngest daughter’s house, right after I married her.

He has very little time left. He’s been terminally ill for a year, and he’ll be with Jesus very soon: could-be-tomorrow kind of soon.

Apart from all of the usual logistical and emotional concerns–none of which I mean to minimize by giving them only part of a sentence–Lea and I have been giving a lot of thought to how to talk to Nathan, our 5-year-old, about it. Nathan knows that Grandpa is very sick, and Nathan knows what death is. We’ve lost both of Lea’s cats during his life, and I talk about my mother from time to time, who died just before he was born. But we hadn’t yet talked to him specifically about what is to come.

Well, he surprised me deeply yesterday. Nathan and I were geocaching, and while that’s fun, it’s at least as satisfying (for both of us, I think) to just be out and together, no matter what we’re doing. He talks to me differently when that’s the case. He asks me questions–just little boy stuff about the world, etc.–that he doesn’t ask me any other time. He tells me he loves me multiple times, and I him, on such junkets. It’s just different, and special, and very cool.

We were driving down 6th Ave. in Decatur yesterday, a couple of blocks short of my dad’s old office, and he said “Daddy, Grandpa is very sick.”

I said, “Yes, he is, buddy.”

“I think he’s going to, well, you know.”


“I don’t want to say it because it’s a bad thing to talk about.”

“Nathan, I’m your daddy, and I’m telling you it’s okay. What?”

“I think Grandpa is going to die.”

Wow. I gathered my thoughts for a moment.

“Nathan, I think you’re right. I don’t think Grandpa is going to get better.”

“That makes me sad.”

“Me too, son.”

“But I’ll still have one grandpa and two grandmas.”

I don’t want to say that Lea and I have agonized, because what we’ve done is something somewhat short of that. But we have devoted a lot of thought and word to how we might share with Nathan that he’s about to lose his grandfather, and it turns out he already knows.

Nathan may still crash. He also may not. He’s quite matter-of-fact about it right now–so much so that we’ve discussed with him how and when we should talk about it (so as not to upset Grandma and the like). But it certainly wasn’t as big a secret as we thought it was.

I’m struck with thinking about what you can plan for and what you can’t, and what you need to talk to your children about and what you only think you need to talk to your children about. Odds are good that we’ll still have an emotional support role with him as this occurs, but he took about 45 seconds yesterday and superseded the entire initial conversation.

When it comes to parenting, the line between considered action and all-out bumbling is already fuzzier than I’d like to believe. I expect that, at least in some ways, this sensation will only intensify as the boys continue to grow up.

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 Posted by at 12:34 am

  4 Responses to “Death and the mind of a child”

  1. We’ve been through this discussion a couple of times. Sometimes it is matter of fact; other times there are lots of tears (mostly me).

    I remember the conversation I had with my then 5 year old after Sept. 11. That was one difficult talk. But very enlightening to have to consider thoughtful answers to his questions. (why?)

    5 year olds can really surprise you with their insight.

  2. Nathan will always have his grandparents.

    I still have all of mine, because even though they’re gone, I remember them, laugh at their memories (and the gozillion stories they shared with me), and love them, even now.

    People die. Memories don’t.


  3. The pre-school teacher over-heard a conversation between Nathan and his little girlfriend. She was explaining that she couldn’t marry him because she had to stay home and take care of her mother. He replied, “Well, ok, but you know it doesn’t matter how well you take care of her…one day she’s still going to die”.

    Intellectually, I think he understands that people die and you don’t get to see them anymore. I’m just not sure how he’s going to be emotionally when the time comes. Heck, intellectually, I understand – this has been a long, painful process, and, honestly, one that I’m now ready for my dad to be released from – but the emotions sneak up on you and kick you in the gut when you least expect. It’s one thing to understand something, it’s another thing to feel it when it happens.

    You’re right, though, he will have great memories and will probably hold up better when the time comes. I’ll be the wreck!

  4. […] I said earlier, he did many significant and wonderful things with his time in this world. He was wholly […]

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