In the early summer of 1976, my life was as any 7-year-old kid’s life should be – fun, making new adventures, and looking forward to a long, glorious school holiday.
Then, in the space of nine weeks, that world came tumbling down.
I lost both my grandfathers and my step-dad – one grandfather and my step-dad to cancer, my other grandfather to natural causes.
While that was undoubtedly traumatic, it was the loss of my schoolfriend, Corinne, that hit me the hardest.
She died of an asthma attack during the summer holidays. One minute she was outside playing with her friends, the next she was gone. When I found out, it broke me.
I’d later compartmentalize that her death hit me hardest because I knew my grandad and step-dad were dying, and my other grandad died simply of old age, so I was “expecting” their deaths.
Corinne, though, was the same age as me – a child, enjoying the summer holiday. Kids don’t die (or, at least I didn’t think they did).
The summer of ’76 was a cruel awakening for me on that front.
The Loss of Innocence and the Recognition of Mortality
I was reminded of that summer by recent conversations with my son, Ewan, who turns seven in May.
Both he and his 5-year-old sister, Salem, are beginning to see little pieces of “the death puzzle”, either through shows or movies we watch, or characters in video games we play together (Brothers being a prime example).
One evening, a couple of weeks ago, Ewan and I were sitting at the table colouring, and he came straight out and asked,
Daddy, what’s going to happen to me and Salem when you and mommy die?
This caught me completely off-guard, and for a moment I really didn’t know what to say. Then, I put my pencil down and looked at Ewan, and we started talking.
I asked him if he thought we were going to die soon, to which he replied he didn’t think so.
I then asked him why he thought both mommy and I would die at the same time, leaving him and his sister all alone. He replied he didn’t think we would, but we might.
After a few more questions, during which he thought I’d die first because I’m older, I kind of had an idea on what to say and replied with this.
We know people die. We know some die before others, while some live longer than others. But I promise you, while I’m alive I’ll do my best to stay alive a long time, so that when I do die, you’ll have your own children to keep you company and happy.
This seemed to placate him, and we went back to colouring, and the death question hasn’t come up since.
As we coloured together, I was happy that we seemed to have passed that particular question okay, but I was also sad.
Ewan’s growing acknowledgment of death was, to me, a sign of his innocent outlook on the world beginning to change, and that he knew that the life he has now won’t always be the same life ahead.
Accepting the Future, Living the Now
However, as much as the conversation left me somewhat sad, it also made me recommit to leading a deliberate life where every moment counts.
Today, I feel healthy (if not quite the fighting weight of my younger days) and I feel good about life and where we’re at in it. I have a home full of love and a circle of friends for whom I truly care.
But that wasn’t always the case, and it could slip away at any moment.
Hearing my son worry about his mother and father dying, and leaving him and his sister all alone was a jarring experience. But it’s one that can’t – and shouldn’t – be brushed aside as something away in the future.
My promise to Ewan, about living for as long as I can, is one I intend to keep. If I do, wonderful – if I don’t… well, hopefully, I get the chance to prepare Ewan and Salem for that inevitability, and remove some of the fear and unknown.
While I am here, though, the goal is simple and can be summed up in three words – love, life, live.
- Show those around you how much they mean to you, and love without conditions,
- Appreciate life is a borrowed time, and spend that time well,
- Live intentionally, and live it with those that make it count.
If those three words can be experienced as much as possible, then hopefully that will make for a lifetime of memories that more than outlive the passing of the physical when it arrives.
Which, at the end of the day, is all any of us can ever ask for.