By Jenny Fiore
“Grandma’s such a funny woman, isn’t she?” I say.
“She’s not a woman,” my daughter harumphs. “She’s an old lady!”
“Maybe to you,” I say. “Why do you think she’s old?”
“Because she’s all wrinkly,” she says.
I pause to look at her smooth, pink skin freckled by six summers. I remember how my grandma looked to me at that age, very pretty but saggy in the face.
“You’re wrinkly, too,” she tells me.
I check to see if she’s wearing her teasing eyes, but they aren’t there. These are her matter-of-fact ones.
“Maybe to you,” I say.
It bothers me that my daughter will never know me as a young woman, a girl with a wild streak, someone who could still turn a back flip at 25. It bothers me that I can’t introduce my six-year-old self to her six-year-old self, let them be friends. I think they would be, but that’s not really what’s eating at me. It’s my own mortality, and how much more aware of it I am through my daughter’s eyes. Do I really have to leave her someday? Impossible.
The next week we are driving from the hospital, where my dad is in the cardiac unit again. He’s recovering as well as can be expected, but the sight of him makes me weak. He’s going to need a heart transplant, soon, and the waist at the hourglass of his life feels horrifyingly wide. I feel heavy all over my body, like someone has poured sand in my veins. My daughter had brought him a drawing of a unicorn, handing it over while eyeballing his IV tubes and the bags and machines hovering around him like soul-sucking ghouls. The sharp angles and bloodlessness of his face when he smiled were almost unbearable. Is he really going to leave me someday? Impossible. Not my dad.
On our way home, we pass the cemetery where I’m told comedian Chris Farley is buried. It’s catty-corner to a high school, plopped on a sort of island between roads that cross each other at berserk angles chopping the land into pie-pieces. One stretch of the cemetery is basically on a really wide median, separated from the other graves by the road on which my daughter and I are driving. There’s just no averting our eyes and pretending we’re not driving through a death park. I look in the rearview mirror to see what my daughter’s making of all those gravestones, going on and on and on like a threat so thinly disguised as a promise.
“Look at that enormous one,” I say. “That’s ridiculous, trying to look so important even after you’re dead.”
“I like the one with the flowers,” she says as we pass a grave surrounded by wrought-iron plant hangers with blossoms cascading out of them. “Mom, when I die, what kinds of flowers are you going to bring to my grave?”
Trying not to look sucker-punched, I tell her I’m going to die first, because I’m the mom and she’s the kid. That’s how it usually goes. Then I ask her what flowers she’ll bring to me. I don’t remember what she says because I’m frightened by all of it. I don’t ever want to leave her. In the rearview mirror, I check again, and she looks just fine.
“You know what would be funny?” she says. “If after you died, you came back as a ghost and you lived in our house!”
I tell her I don’t want to do that, and she furrows her brow and asks why.
“Because I want to go to heaven and get things ready for you there.” I feel dirty inside, being so trite.
“Good,” she tells me. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together in heaven.”
My crow-footed eyes narrow at myself in the mirror, and I feel like such a liar: Despite my best efforts, I haven’t any real faith that there’s a heaven. I tell her I do, but I don’t. I have only the hope and inclination to believe there’s something after all of this. I’ve made myself okay with lying about this one thing. Because maybe it’s not really a lie. And maybe it’s the only way we can drive by cemeteries, looking at the backs of our wrinkled parents’ heads leading the way to death in front of us.
Author’s Note: When I wrote this piece, my dad was scrabbling along with a grisly pump-assist device, waiting for a new heart. I was in a constant state of heightened anxiety while trying to keep my kids from worrying about losing their grandpa. Not an easy balancing act for a gal with a lifelong death-phobia. I don’t remember which came first—my fear of my parents’ mortality or my fear of my own—but neither held a candle to the fears that came with being a mom. That’s when the anxiety was no longer about only me and my parents dying but also about my children’s mortality and their fears about their own mortality and their fears about the mortality of their parents and grandparents, and—good God, get a hold of yourself, woman! I like to think my anxiety about death is some crooked expression of how much I love my life instead of a sign of cowardice or faithlessness. I’m still hoping for a heaven, still not certain it’s there, still telling my kids it will be, and indescribably grateful for the organ donor who gave us all a little more time to be together, a little more time to find our way.
About the Author: Jenny Fiore lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two children, five hens, and a tomcat. She is a Pushcart Prize Special Mention honoree for her essay “A Year at the Lake,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Brain, Child. “Older” appears in her newly released collection of literary and humor essays, After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, March 2013).
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