My daughter is more prepared for life because Tippy died. When that yapping dog didn’t greet Lucy upon us entering Great Aunt Leslie’s house, naturally my 4-year-old asked where she was. My husband shot me a please-tell-her-the-farm look. I ignored him. “Tippy died, sweetie,” I told her.
“What does died mean?”
“It means Tippy left this earth.”
“Where did he go?”
“To Dog Heaven,” I told her, recalling a sweet children’s book by Cynthia Rylant, “where he plays with other dogs, eats dog biscuits, and sleeps on clouds.” The final image got her to giggle. We all took a breath. No one likes to begin an annual visit with a discussion of death.
We headed out to the back deck. I choked up at the view of the lake, of having two healthy children, and of dogs snuggling into clouds. I made a mental note to send Leslie a copy of Dog Heaven. And then my husband had to finger sweep a pebble out of the baby’s mouth. He wailed for five minutes while Lucy whined that the crying was “too loud, too loud!” We were back in the grind of child rearing.
Isn’t the grind where we all get a little stuck? We get tangled in diaper changes and to do’s. We grow obsessed with our and our children’s futures. We forget to live, to breathe, to be. Maybe because we ignore death.
An hour later Lucy was watering the plants on the deck. My son was chewing on board books. The adults were catching up.
“Mama, am I going to be died one day?” This was heavier than I wanted to go with a 4-year-old on a July afternoon. My husband shot me an I-told-you-so look.
“Yes,” I said.
“But I like earth.” She was crying now. My husband was uncomfortable, Aunt Leslie was uncomfortable. Damn you, Tippy, I thought.
I mentally regrouped. Knotty topics like death never come up at convenient times. I hugged her and told her that we all die, but we all get to meet up in heaven. “Will there be baby dolls there?”
“Yes, and lots of pizza for Daddy.” I got a nervous giggle out of her.
Back when I was a teacher, the eighth-graders read Walk Two Moons, a book that addresses death. There were some parent murmurings about whether we should expose children to so much seriousness. At the time, the parents seemed ridiculous to me. Wasn’t the point of literature to give one a jumping board for exploring life? Was death not a part of life? Years later, as I hugged my crying daughter, I got those parents. I understood why dogs go to the farm.
A month after our visit to Aunt Leslie, Lucy and I were walking to the playground holding hands and fighting over why we couldn’t get ice cream an hour before dinner. I was in the grind. And then I was out. “Will you hold my hand when I go into heaven because I’m going to be scared?”
I thought of Stephen whose mother died of cancer the year we read Walk Two Moons in class. “Yes,” I said as I squeezed her hand tighter.
Just yesterday on a rainy car ride to preschool, Lucy asked if people in heaven talk to the people on earth. I thought of our neighbor who became a young widow. She’s remarried now. She went into labor for her daughter on her late husband’s birthday. “Absolutely,” I said, and I believed it in my core.
Good dog, Tippy.
Tara Lynn Jordan is a freelance writer and mother of two in Boston.
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