I am cooking dinner when he says it. He sidles up to me at the kitchen bench, opens and closes the top drawer, turns over a tin of tomatoes in his hands. “Mummm,” he says, examining a packet of couscous, “when will I die? And where will I go?” I force myself to keep slicing the carrot, to give no hint that this is anything but an ordinary conversation.
But before I can answer, he has lucked upon a Band-Aid in the cutlery drawer and rushes off to rescue his little sister from a bear attack. I stop chopping and look out the window, stilling the familiar panic. Our cat is dying and there’s not much time left.
“She is really unwell,” I tell my son as we take her to the vet.
“I know,” he says.
“She’s really, really old, too, and when you get really, really old, things in your body stop working.”
He nods and we walk the rest of the way in silence. His first words next morning: “But you’re old. Are you going to die?”
“Yes,” I say. “Not for a long time, hopefully, but yes.”
That night, he lies in bed next to me, awake. “I’m sad,” he says, over and over. I ask him why and he shrugs his little shoulders and sighs a long sigh that belies his three and a half years.
I know why, but I want him to feel that it is okay, that sadness and death don’t need to be hidden away; that happiness is good, but sadness is imperative, too; that without one, we cannot really know the other.
One day in the park, my little boy is looking for wiggly worms – squatting, head bent, nails ploughing the dry earth. He finds one and transports it onto a leaf-boat, chatting to it. And then, it is moving no more.
“Mum, Mum, Mummy, Mumma, make it real again,” he sobs. Eventually, he stops pleading with me and just sits and weeps. And I can do nothing but hold him.
At the museum, after another trip to the vet, we marvel at Phar Lap and watch an old movie of the horse coming from behind and streaking ahead. Every time we see this footage at the museum, we say the same things. Me: “He can’t win this one, I’m sorry.” My son, squealing in delight: “He does, Mummy, he does – watch, watch!” But this time, when it finishes, he asks me where the real Phar Lap is. When I tell him, he collapses on the floor, wailing.
At lunch in the museum cafe, he looks up at me and places a half-eaten Vegemite and cheese sandwich on the table between us.
“Can I go to heaven when I’m not died? Because I want to keep some of this for Phar Lap.”
I am not prepared for our cat’s death, when the vet says it’s time. Not for its speed, after everything, nor for its peace. As I go back to my waiting family, I think of my son playing around at the cemetery, about a year ago.
He had seen his daddy sitting on the grass and ran over to him. He was jumping and darting, laughing and yelling. And then he started to sing. “I’m doing a concert,” he told us. “It’s rock’n’roll.” It was deafening.
I glanced about us. A lady smiled as she placed some flowers nearby. No one else appeared to care. Because there seemed to be only one answer: to death we must respond with life. There still seems to be only one answer.
Home from the vet, my son asks how far away our cat is. “If I talk really loudly, can she hear me?”
Before I can answer, he begins to yell, “I LOVE YOU! I MISS YOU! Do you think she heard that, Mummy?” The next day, he tells his friend of her passing. “But it’s okay,” he says, “because we can still talk to her. We have lots of photos.”
And in this moment, I remember a quote that my dad had cut from a newspaper and propped against a photo frame on his desk – about how you are never really gone as long as you are remembered. And I think of Dad and me, always promising each other that we would live to 100. Because 100 was the biggest number I knew then.
I realise I need to let go of fear because this moment is all there is – not a reinvented past, or an imagined future. Just now. And now is good.