Some years back, as we were watching TV one evening, my wife’s ears suddenly pricked up and she leapt from the couch. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “It’s Josh,” she replied. “He’s crying.” Apparently he was howling at a frequency only a mother could hear.
Carol dashed upstairs, returning several minutes later with the nine-year-old Josh trailing behind, his face flushed, eyes wet and using his pajama sleeve to wipe his tears and runny nose. Carol informed me Josh was upset about something and wanted to discuss it with both of us.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” I asked, extending my arms and offering him a reassuring smile while trying to keep one eye on the courtroom histrionics unfolding during the second half of Law & Order. We discussed a concern common among children around his age — he had begun to wrestle with the concept of mortality.
Josh told us how he realized his grandparents were getting older and one day “soon” they would die, as would his parents and friends and pets. There was no reference to his own demise but I chose not to press him on that omission.
His mother and I took turns consoling him, trying to respond truthfully without introducing undue alarm. We trotted out all the usual homilies — death is a part of life, everybody/everything dies, it’s not going to happen for a long time, yes we had named him as our sole beneficiary, etc. He eventually calmed down, seemingly placated by our reassurances, and soon went back to bed.
A few nights later, just as the late news came on, we heard footsteps and Josh came around the corner into the living room. Again he had been crying and was distraught. “What’s wrong, honey?” his mother asked. He stopped sobbing long enough to exclaim, “It’s death again!” We pulled him onto the couch between us and had a conversation very similar to the previous one. In between sniffles he said his latest worry was around whether we were going to establish a living trust so he could avoid probate. I offered him a tissue and while he blew his nose I said we’d certainly give it some thought.
The subject eventually faded from discussion and the only other time after that I recall hearing Josh cry out in the middle of the night was about a year later. Carol and I dashed through the dark into his room to ask what was wrong. He was terrified because “There’s a spider trying to kill me!” We said that was ridiculous and turned on the light so we could show him it was just his imagination. After flipping the switch, we saw a spider the size of a silver dollar descending from the ceiling light fixture along a thin line of silk, hovering inches from his face. It was a scene right out of a horror film and all that was missing was a high-pitched shriek, which I obligingly provided. Carol, keeping her wits, ran to grab some toilet paper and quickly wrapped up the beast, relocating it to the commode and a swirling end of days. None of us, most importantly Josh, seemed upset in the least by how abruptly the spider had been forced to confront its mortality, and our son fell back asleep before inquiring as to the disposition of the arachnid’s estate.
I thought of these vignettes after reading an article in our local newspaper about the sudden death of a man after shoveling snow. To clarify these events: both the man and I had recently shoveled snow; after that the man died, and after that I read about it. In the past when I’d heard about such tragedies I didn’t pay much attention since the decedent was usually someone well into middle age, older than me. But this time I noticed the man was age 54; I just turned 59. This gave me pause; I thought about my own mortality along with what I could do to make sure I didn’t succumb to a similar fate from future attempts at this specific endeavor. I read an article about proper body mechanics when shoveling snow, reminders to pace oneself when doing so, and also considered whether it made sense to acquire a snow blower to lessen my exertion. I love to get a new toy as much as the next guy, but decent snow blowers are expensive — so I weighed my available options and return on investment while factoring in my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. After calculating the probabilities, I implemented the most effective course of action to all but guarantee I would never meet my demise as a result of shoveling snow.
I make Carol do it now.