The other night around bedtime we heard a sobbing sound from the girl’s bedroom. In a moment, our oldest was standing in our doorway holding her arms around herself in tearful and uncertain pose. She came and sat on the end of my bed and we had an interesting conversation. I’m certain that I have had similar conversations and probably even similar blog posts but since this is 50% therapy and 50% archive-for-my-children, I will share this one too.
This was our exchange:
Jane: What happens when we die?
UD: (Yay! This topic again!) Why are you worried about this?
I don’t want you and mommy to die. I don’t want to be without you.
Well, with a little luck you won’t have to worry about that for a good while.
But what do you think happens? Tell me the truth.
The truth… The truth is that no one knows. Everyone has a theory but I haven’t talked to anyone who has died and lived to tell the tale.
I’m serious too. I have no idea. I think we are so afraid of death because we fear the unknown. The uncertain. People have lots of different ideas and they hold tight to those ideas because that is what gives them comfort. It makes them less afraid.
Are you afraid to die?
Absolutely. I love my life. I love you girls. I don’t want to leave anytime soon but one day I will. My job is to make sure you can carry on with your life when I do.
I don’t want to be without you.
I know and in a lot of ways you won’t be
What do you mean?
I don’t know how to make you feel better but I have an idea. Let’s talk about something else for a minute and see if that helps.
Let’s talk about the way life works on a really small, basic level.
Life and living things are really interesting because they made up of cells.
(she raises an eyebrow) I know about cells. We learned about them in school.
Good. Then you know that inside every cell are the instructions for how that cell is made. Think about how cool that is. Every single cell contains the instructions to build a copy of itself. In fact, if you are more than seven years old most of your cells have died but before they did they were replaced with an exact copy. You are made of completely different cells than you were seven years ago. Even your brain. It happens continuously.
That’s kind of strange. Are you saying I’m a different person?
No. Just the opposite. I’m saying that who you are can exist through the most dramatic of changes because you are more than any one cell. You are this continuous thing that is constantly getting damaged and updating and repairing itself. Do you follow what I am saying so far?
I think so.
The things that make you and me are different from things that are not alive. A rock will always be the same rock. Seven years down the road, same molecules. Same rock. A rock can’t have children it can only become smaller rocks.
What about fossils?
That is the last change that something living experienced before it disappeared into a rock. Like a 3D photograph using chemistry and… that is getting off topic. Let’s take this DNA idea one step further. Every piece of your instructions inside your cells came from life before you. I didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It was inherited. That’s why we can do the ancestry tests and see where our ancestors came from. Our DNA passes forward.
But I am from you and mommy. Do I have both of your DNA?
Yes. Well sort of.
Like, all of it?
No. We passed you about half of each of our DNA. DNA gives us our body shape and eye color. It can pass the same moles or a funny looking toe. It’s all part of the evolutionary-biology thing. But you can pass other things forward. We can inherit things from other people.
Like your opinions. Your humor. Your smile. A love of Mel Brooks movies or watching thunderstorms on a warm summer evening. You can inspire a passion for animals and a contempt for injustice. I hear myself saying things exactly like granddaddy does. Your sister looks exactly like your great aunt as a child. You learned to be a smartass just like me and sadly I think your sisters have too. We are constantly having an effect on the world around us. Passing things forward.
Lady Bug talks loud like Papaw.
Exactly, they have their own loud, country redneck language. It is a beautiful thing.
I don’t understand them sometimes.
Me either but you see what I mean. She learned that from interacting with him a lot and it is part of who she is. If something happens to Papaw you will still see him when Lady Bug yells at something that isn’t working properly.
(she laughs) Yeah. Can you tell me a funny Papaw story like the tree story?
Let’s stay on topic. Just for another minute so I can finish this thought. So another little fact about the way DNA passes forward, it is much more likely to pass forward good information instead of damaged information. Reproduction actually helps to repair us as a species. And when we take things from our friends and relatives it is usually things we like and things that make us feel good. Our social network makes us better too.
That is a lot to think about.
I know. It is. But I promise I have a point. Let’s go back to your original fear.
That I don’t want you to die or go away?
Yes. That one. Tell me something… if you are made of the same thing I am made of, if you are built off the same set of instructions, how can you be without me? You are one-half ME. You enjoy the same things I do. We like the same jokes. You can’t be without me if you tried.
I see what you mean.
One day something will happen to me. Hopefully it is a long time away. Like maybe I’m ninety and annoying as hell and you are plotting my death instead of fearing it.
I won’t do that. I will be really sad.
And that is normal. Being scared of losing people is normal but don’t hang on to the sad. Set it down and keep moving forward. Take the good and the happy and pass it forward.
Like memories and pictures in Coco?
Exactly. There is no clear start or end. We are made up of our past and working together to make the future. Was any of this helpful?
Yes. Thank you Daddy. I feel better.
I feel better too. See… another connection. Now, two things… I love you and get your ass in bed. It’s late.
I love you too.
She went to bed and I sat for a minute pondering my spur-of-the-moment discussion. Was it the right thing to say? I think it was. She seemed content. It gave me peace and some perspective. It made me think of a poem that my cousin shared a few weeks ago and I have included a piece of it below.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.“
-John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, circa. 1624
If you have inherited anything through DNA or by everyday exposure, this post is for you. You’re welcome. Share a family trait that you have inherited in the comments.
-Underdaddy to the rescue.