Rowan has been obsessed with dinosaurs. My brother asked me, “what is it about dinosaurs?” And then it struck me: the attraction is ultimately about facing his own mortality. “Where have the dinosaurs gone? Why did they go back to the Earth? Are they coming back? Why not? When do we go back to the Earth?” The questions slowly unfold over a period of weeks and months. We dance around the topic often. His teachers tell me he has taken to reading a book called The Day the Dinosaurs Died, over and over again. “Are you going back to the Earth one day, Mama? I don’t want you to go…”
We are in the Why realm of parent-child interactions. Question upon question. This week Rowan asked again, “When do we go back to the Earth?” Its a mystery, it’s a surprise, I tell him. This time, he isn’t consoled. He bursts into tears and says “I don’t want to go…I don’t want to turn back into dirt…I want to stay here.” Almost immediately I can feel my own reactions to death surfacing and I see him look at me intently, gauging my response. This is a moment when all beliefs and stories culminate. It is a moment of pause. How do I answer? What do I say? My own fear of death and resistance to the true finality of mortality surfaces. I try to relax. I take a deep breath and hear myself telling him that while his skin and bones may return home to the Earth, our hearts stay connected to everything – and that our hearts become bigger than ourselves and our current bodies. “We become bigger than our body, ” I say. “We won’t be alone. We become connected with everything else…” I suddenly see that ‘returning to the Earth’ is likely evoking a lonely, solemn image. Dinosaur bones, dirt, bugs, garbage? I wonder what he is imagining. I hear myself tell him the Earth isn’t a bad place, either: the realm of seeds and soil and the new life of Spring he’s been observing of late. “Our hearts stay, becoming like the sky. Our bodies are like transformers (insert smile) – one minute we are one thing and the next we can transform..Its like magic,” I hear myself say.
It strikes me that this is a moment of profound explanation I’ve known would come but that I didn’t prepare for. It was a spontaneous answer, and maybe one that will shift next time. “Who else is there?” he asks me when I tell him about becoming something different. I wonder to myself: what will I say of Heaven? And what will I say of Nothingness? What about the raw, painful truth of endings? And what if I am not there with him in his passing? I want to tell him I’ll be with him. I want to reassure him, but I find I can’t. Instead, I simply feel our togetherness, now. Our bond, now. This lifetime, now. And then I remember Death: it is indeed the great transformer, a holy surprise.
He repeats it back to me matter of factly, seeming a bit more satisfied. “But our skin and bones do have to go back to the Earth,” he says, holding his own arms. “Yes. And that is why we need to remember the gift of every day and of our bodies and each other,” I answer.
That very night I am up until midnight facing the specter of complications resulting from a routine procedure my dad recently underwent. The complications almost land him in the Emergency Room. I face squarely all my fears of loss, the resistance to change, the grasping for solidity amidst flux, he reticence to letting go of what has been. It all of a sudden strikes me that what I have said to Rowan is true, for me: What, then, if anything, is constant? Love. What remains? Heart. Love can find its way into any crack. Regardless of outcome, love can be present. And the beauty of it is that I can’t grab a hold of it. I can’t grasp for it. I can only practice feeling it. I can only relax into it.
It’s not that any of this erases my shaky anxiety. What if my dad is the one in one thousand who dies from this procedure? All of this is simply a reminder of what I can find at the bottom of grief and sorrow and confusion and uncertainty. It is what I can live into as the glorious backdrop of life. In a sense, it then doesn’t matter what is next or why. All that matters is the present moment experience of Love: and whether we can bring this to our most challenging moments. Can we bring love into our moments of fear and unrest? Can we bring love into our moments of unsettledness and resistance? Can we bring this even through the raw edges of death’s door?
The next day I stumble upon this quote from Swami Vivekananda, the page open at a friend’s house. The missing words are “He believes that the soul is a circle…………….whose center is situated in the body.”