A couple weeks ago I attended a visitation for my friend's father. Upon returning home from the funeral parlor Noah told me, "Mom, if it get's dangerous I'll just be sure not to leave home without my lightsaber. And, if I die I'll come back as a Jedi ghost and I'll have my lightsaber with me and I'll never die."
Death is not an easy subject for kids to grasp, but it's 100 times tougher for kids on the Autism spectrum. While I want Noah to understand the permanence of death, in that moment, I held my tongue and discovered I'd rather talk to him about sex than mortality.
I was about Noah's age the first time I experienced the death of a loved one. I lost my paternal grandparents in a span of six weeks. And, although that was 30 years ago, tears still stream freely down my cheeks as I recall that time. Grandma was just 67 years old and died after spending more than a month in I.C.U due to injuries she incurred from being hit by a car. I still remember the night of the accident. I didn't cry because that would have meant I'd given up on ever seeing her again. Instead, upon learning she'd been hurt, I went to my room and got on my knees and began praying...though it was more like begging. I pleaded for God to let her be OK. I would do whatever He asked of me. I would be good. I promised. I may have even suggested that I'd be willing to become a nun if he would just allow her to live.
While my parents visited her regularly, I did not, as I was told children were not allowed in the I.C.U. The next time I would see her would be in a casket. She passed away on January 31, 1982...my 10th birthday. I'd never seen a dead person before. I looked at her sleeping face and concentrated hard on her waxy figure. Struggling with the reality of the situation, my eyes began playing tricks on me. I rushed up to my mom and whispered, "I think I just saw her chest move."
I was so sure there had been a mistake. My mom looked into my worried face and gently explained that I only thought I saw her move because my grief was so great. I wasn't convinced and went back to check on her again. Months later, I shared how angry I was at not being able to see her in the hospital. I believed that if I'd been given the chance to talk to her, that she would have fought harder.
During the time grandma was in the hospital, grandpa stayed with us. While grandma was boisterous and chatty and knew no strangers, grandpa was quiet, gentle and put a lot of thought into his words before he spoke. He taught me to play checkers and how to make cracker and cheese towers. He was also diabetic and had poor eye sight, balance and circulation. But, his health, never stopped him from traveling the country with grandma via Bi-State. That is, until her accident. The longer she remained in the hospital, the less interested grandpa became in games and in consuming my creations of saltines and salami with Philly cream cheese. I watched as my mother began tending to his leg sores more frequently. Bathing his bruised, discolored feet in Epsom salts soon became a daily routine.
We had to wait a week to bury grandma because Mother Nature had recently dumped three and a half feet of snow onto an already frozen surface. The day of her funeral I sat in a folding chair, shivering under a red and black plaid, fleece blanket with my parents and siblings next to me. The words of the clergyman were far away and hollow-sounding to my ears. He didn't know grandma personally and to this day I can't recall a single word from his generic benediction. That afternoon at home, dad and grandpa began arguing. It was a sight I'd never witnessed before. What happened next, would forever be branded into my long term memory. Dad had had enough talk and simply lifted his father in his arms and carried him to our family car. Grandpa wept like a child and begged his son to let him stay while I obediently followed dad outside and numbly opened the passenger door for him. After they left, mom explained that grandpa was very sick and needed to be in the hospital. His feet were dying.
At first, the doctors only removed a few toes, but within a couple of weeks, grandpa lost part of his leg. We also learned that he had cancer. Every Sunday my parents would take us to visit him. My sister and I spent most of our time in the rec room drawing pictures to cover up the sterile walls of grandpa's room. Each time we returned, he seemed smaller and less connected to the here and now. Mom explained that he was on heavy painkillers. However, when we visited him on March 14th, he was alert and even joked with us. For the first time in weeks, I felt hopeful that he would be back home with us very soon. But, when I waggled my finger at grandpa for snatching a few shamrock-shaped cookies mom had brought for us to snack on, I heard, "Andrea, he can have a few. It won't hurt him," said Mom. Her permissive words didn't sit well with me and hinted at something grim to come. Grandpa died a few days later. Though his death certificate states cancer as the cause of death, I believe he actually died from a broken heart.
Today, I am the same age my only-child dad was when he buried both of his parents. I can't even begin to fathom the grief, he was left to shoulder. I struggle with how to explain death to my children in a way that is real, but also hopeful and provides comfort rather than an increase in anxiety and nightmares. Also, who am I to tell Noah lightsabers aren't allowed in heaven.