Death, Stories, and Details

George - Litchfield, Connecticut
Entered on August 21, 2008
Age Group: 65+

We just finished our favorite book about a man and a butterfly. We were discussing whether the man was dreaming he was a butterfly or whether the butterfly was dreaming he was a man.

Claire was five years old at the time, one year after her mother, my daughter Betsy, died giving birth to my grandson, Luke.

After thinking about the story, Claire said, “I think the butterfly is dreaming he’s a man.”

I replied, “It could be, Claire. Butterflies are beautiful — you never know! They may dream, too.”

Reading to her was a warm adventure. Her expressive dark eyes and exuberant and innocent wonder always amazed me. Claire loved stories and had an inquisitive mind.

After a few minutes, she asked me a question that surprised me; one I couldn’t answer real well. She said, “Grandpa, tell me about your Dad. Where is he?”

“Well, Claire, my Dad died when I was four years old. I know what he did for a living and I have pictures of him, but I don’t really remember much about him. He died when I was so young that I can’t tell if what I remember really happened or whether what I recall is from stories that people told me about him.”

She looked at me pensively and said, “He died when you were four years old?” She paused and added, “Oh, Grandpa, you’re just like me.”

I was a bit stunned by this response, and I replied softly, “Yes, Claire, we are a bit a like, aren’t we. My Dad died when I was four years old and your Mom died when you were four. I guess we are a bit the same.”

I turned and looked at her profile. My heart ached for her. Claire and Betsy had such a close relationship. She remembered many details of being with her mother — the pumpkin farm, picking strawberries, baking cookies, decorating for Christmas, birthday parties, and small things like grocery shopping. As time softens the events of the past, I fear that she might struggle to remember her Mom. When someone dies, you don’t forget them, but some of the specifics and feeling tone fade.

Life is found in the details: those small seemingly unimportant dealings that bring a person’s personality to life. College degrees, certificates, jobs, or bank accounts do not reveal a person. Their character can be seen in the small and sometimes innocuous interactions, dilemmas, and situations they faced. Their principles are painted on the canvas of their life through small interactions, relationships, and defining moments.

I didn’t know my Dad because I had no record of his life, except for the big events: date and place of birth, jobs, marriage, and date of and reason for death. The big picture sometimes obscures those juicy and human events that portray character and personality, sense of humor and beliefs. Even in the stories people told me about him, the details and feeling tone were unclear.

I looked at Claire and feared that Betsy might be forgotten in the avalanche of time. And I knew someday Luke would wonder, “Who was this woman who gave birth to me and then died?” Kids want and need to know their parents: their individuality, foibles, peculiarities, spirit, strengths, and weaknesses. They want to know what part of them shadows and reflects their parents.

To this day, I would give anything to have a long lunch with my Dad and get to know him: how he spoke, his favorite words, his fears, his dreams, how he felt when he saw me for the first time, what his favorite thing was to do with me and my sister, his politics, his love for my mother . . . and a host of other things. I’d like to know it directly and not filtered through other people’s lenses and memories.

When I was raised, I think people didn’t talk much to children about the parent who died for fear of making the child sad or fearful. In the long-term, that silence was a disservice.