There Is More To Life Than My Life

Jamaica Ritcher - Turner, Australia
As heard on Day to Day, April 24, 2006
Jamaica Ritcher

When the family cat dies, Jamaica Ritcher has to explain to her two-year-old daughter what happened. In searching for an explanation of death, Ritcher finds a belief to guide her life.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: death, fear, gratitude
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My daughter Maia is two, and has just asked about our cat. Our cat is dead. Maia knows this. What she’s wondering is where he’s gone and what has happened to him, now that he no longer meows beneath her kitchen chair, impatient for the drips off her spoon.

This is the moment I realize: I need to know what I believe.

My parents were straightforward in admitting they didn’t know what happens when we die. As a child, I probably lost a solid year of sleep pondering that enormous mystery: bone-still under the covers I lay awake picturing my future of eternal nothingness and wracked by the tragedy of no more Me. The subject still haunts me. I’d like Maia’s attitude to be slightly healthier. This is what I bring to composing an answer to her question about the cat.

After a weighty pause I tell my daughter that Martin (the cat) is out in the field. I tell her that when animals, including people, die, they are usually put into the ground and that their bodies become the grasses, flowers and trees. I pass my hand over Maia’s blonde curls, gently touch a rosy cheek and check her reaction. She appears untroubled. She seems thrilled by the thought of one day becoming a flower.

I am stunned. In this exchange, I actually realize what I believe, as if so many fragments from my life — camping trips and nature walks, pangs of sympathy, awe toward the crashing sea and towering skyscraper, love, science class, motherhood — have suddenly converged into one, unified conviction: not that I’m destined for plant fertilizer, but that there is more to life than my life. I am not the lonely human, plunked down on earth to aimlessly wander. I am a part of that earth and not going anywhere — just like the spider up in the corner, the dust on the sill and the cat I buried in the backyard. I watch Maia mull things over while she munches her Cheerios. I feel an unfamiliar calm. I feel connected. I am humbled and, what’s more, happy. Life, death, both are all around me, within my every breath.

Later, I reach for my daughter’s hand and we muddy our shoes with a springtime walk. Together, we see new leaves glowing against the sun, green hillsides shimmering with the breeze, the bright purple bursts of lupine. And it’s okay if there is nothing beyond this, because there is this: life, everlasting, in the bloom of every flower.

A native of northern California, Jamaica Ritcher has enjoyed the outdoors since she was a child. In addition to being an avid camper, she studied cultural anthropology and natural science in college. Ritcher and her family now live in Australia where her husband is doing post-doctoral research in plant biology.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.