Last Thursday, one of our neighbors passed away suddenly. Although we’re fairly new to the neighborhood, we knew all about her within seconds of moving in and unpacking the boxes. She had a serious reputation amongst the posse under 10. Our kids, after having received highly credible juvenile intelligence from the girls down the street, knew immediately where to get their fix of smiles, cookies, candy and compliments. The woman was legend.
The Tuesday morning preceding her death was the first time I met her. As she was weeding her flower beds, and I was rushing to get to work, she stopped me in my tracks to tell me how happy she was that I moved across the street from her. (Apparently, she had already done her homework on us to make sure we weren’t carnies). Despite the fact that I was running late, we spent time together and bonded on our strikingly similar lives. She spoke of her own estrogen overdose as the mother of four girls, her years in Catholic school, her time living in the same working class Philly neighborhood where I grew up, her political beliefs and why we chose the street we now shared to raise our families. It was a familiar, pleasant conversation on that kind of cool, sunny morning — the type of morning that makes your lungs feel like they’ve been treated to a supreme form of oxygen.
I offered to bring the girls over for a visit during the weekend, and her smile lit up like a Christmas tree at my proposal. Then I drove away with a huge grin on my face wondering what the girls and I would bake for her to bring when we stopped in. It was a true, “this is a scene from Pleasantville” moment.
On Wednesday morning, I saw her again. Again, she was tending to her plants. Again, I was rushing out to work. This time, I had my two oldest daughters with me, who in classic true-to-selves form, waved at her with the same enthusiasm and gusto that they’d exhibit if waving to Zac Efron. Again, her smile visibly widened across her face.
The next day, she was gone. After 50 years of marriage, four children, and from what I hear, 800 tons of the best Halloween candy distributed on the planet, her life was over.
The above-mentioned informants little girls across the street rode like Paul Revere to our home to deliver the sad news. “She died today,” they told my daughters. “Her heart stopped working.”
Later that day, The Pip, while coloring at the kitchen table, shouted to me across the room: “Hey Mom — how do you spell ‘I’m sorry for your lost?'” Half-touched to tears and half-giggling at her easy mistake, I replied, “Who taught you that?”
She quickly confessed that our 7-year-old neighbor schooled her on the phrase, but she didn’t really know what it meant. And so, I tried with: “Mrs. C is in heaven and she doesn’t get to come back again, so we say that Mr. C lost her. Not like he lost her like you lose a toy or your wallet. But different. He won’t be able to get her back again until he’s in heaven to see her again so she’s lost.” Anyway I tried to make sense of it with my words, I floundered miserably. And she knew that my tutorial sucked.
And it got me thinking that while “I’m sorry for your loss” is absolutely one of the best things to say to someone when someone they love dies, it probably didn’t click for The Pip in terms of how I’ve always explained death to her.
Death, while not an encouraged “this is a blast!” topic ’round the family dinner table, comes up in our household quite a bit. My children have never known their grandfather — my father — and refer to him lovingly as “Angel Mickey.” Because they (thankfully) have an amazing relationship with their three living grandparents, they can’t help but ask every once in a while why someone’s missing the par-tay, or why Grandmom G “doesn’t have a Pop.”
And that gets me back to “I’m sorry for your loss.” Right or wrong, my kids don’t think we’ve lost Angel Mickey. They think he hangs out around them all the time with his invisible super powers. (Don’t judge me — I didn’t actually tell them he’s a superhero with the ability to go undetected, and no, my kids aren’t “I see dead people” Sixth Sense freakshows). But whether hanging on a cloud watching kindergarten graduation or sitting on their shoulders as they open their Christmas presents every year, they consider Angel Mickey to be in the hizzouse. They know where to find him — so how could he be “lost?”
And so, The Pip included a spell-checked “I’m sorry for your loss” on Mr. C’s handmade card. But on the back, she drew a picture of a woman standing next to a house and labeled it “Mrs. C.” And when I asked about the picture, the words “she’s watching Mr. C but now she’s outside of the house looking through the window” flowed so naturally. (As if this surely is just what happened to Mrs. C — without question or second thought). Mrs. C, you see, is far from lost.
Incidentally, The Pip’s next question was “Did Mrs. C get her rock in the big rock garden yet?”
But I’ll save that for another post.