Here’s an uplifting opening sentence: I’ve been thinking about death lately. Our bodies have ways of reminding us of particularly painful seasons, and I recently realized that in my family, the start of Fall is a time marked by death: our first dog died in early September, my father in late September, the cat two weeks after that, and now my first kitty, almost twenty years old, is just barely clinging to life. For him it could be any day now.
I guess it’s not so unusual that I’m thinking about this; and it’s somewhat ironic that this time is leading into Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, you’re supposed to ask God to keep your name in the Book of Life another year. I haven’t practiced this in years, but now I feel somewhat superstitious about it.
I’m also thinking about the first time I learned about death. I don’t want to date myself by admitting how old I was when The Lion King came out, but I was quite young. Young enough to not quite “get” what death was all about, and at that point, I’d been spared from ever having to deal with it. The scene in which Simba has a vision of his father telling him to return to Pride Rock confused me – in my child mind, it was like Mufasa came back. He must have just been sleeping.
My father gently corrected me, and that scene is one of my earliest “traumatic” memories: being told that no, Sweetie, death is permanent. So it’s not like sleeping? Well, in a way…but it’s sleep that never ends.
That conversation made bedtime more of a chore than it already was. Now that my father is eleven months gone, I can’t get that moment out of my mind.
What’s the point of rehashing all this? I had a conversation with my therapist recently about the moments in which we feel we’ve grown up. For many people, adulthood happens much earlier than it’s supposed to. They are forced to take on the roles of grown-ups when barely out of childhood themselves. I, luckily, did not have a childhood like that.
My “growing up” moment happened at age fourteen, when a thirteen-year-old classmate committed suicide. We weren’t close at the time, but we used to be. He’d come over to my house and we’d climb this giant tree in my backyard, goofy eleven-year-olds that we were. By seventh grade we moved to different friendship circles, but still exchanged the occasional “Hey” between classes. His death was my first realization that bad things could not only happen in my small town of Glorified Suburbia, but they could happen to kids. Kids I knew.
But now that I think about it, the death conversation from The Lion King was a pivotal growing up moment. And sort of like in The Lion King, I had a dream not long after Dad’s death where I was driving through the valley that lead to one of our favorite breakfast locations: a tradition we cultivated in the last years of his life. Dad was in the backseat, which I thought was strange, and when I asked what he was doing back there, he said, “I can’t stay long. But you’re doing fine.”
I can’t stay long. But you’re doing fine.
I feel silly relating that grief-motivated dream to Simba’s vision, but in the same way that that vision motivated him to return home and make things right, so too did my dream of Dad motivate me to accept that things are sucky right now – and this won’t be the last season of sadness – but if I continue taking care of myself and moving forward, I’ll be fine.
I’ll be fine.