Milo was four when our cat Mini died, and his curiosity was boundless. He peppered us with questions for weeks: “Where did she go? Why did she die? Will I die? Will you die? Will we die at the same time?” While we chose to not be terribly graphic about her death, we opted to be honest about what we knew, or admit that we were fuzzy about some things.
Our second cat succumbed to kidney failure five short weeks after the first, and Milo came home from preschool to a petless house. “I’m sorry I have to tell you this, honey, but Max died today,” I said.
“No he didn’t,” Milo said, and he walked away.
We didn’t ask if he wanted to talk; it was clear that two deaths were more than he could process, so we let him be.
A few weeks later Milo told us a story. “I know where the cats are,” he said. “Wax and Wini are worms and they live in our backyard.”
It was an elegant explanation to a riddle he couldn’t solve.
In a quiet moment at my own home—a break from Dad's drama—I turned on the television to find some sort of time-sink, something to arrest my brain. Something mind-numbing and shallow. What Milo glimpsed instead was the procession for Edward Kennedy’s funeral. “Can we watch this?” Milo asked. He was intrigued.
Since Lars and I were moved by Senator Kennedy’s passing and indulgent about Milo’s interest, we left it on. His curiosity was piqued by the long cortege of Cadillacs and vans, blinking motorcycles and police cars. It was a parade of his favorite things.
But he stayed glued for other reasons. We were happy to indulge him with answers to the barrage of questions for the hour-and-a-half we watched (“Why are the hazard lights on?” he asked. “Why are they driving so slow? Why did he die? Why is he in a coffin?”) and it gave us a meaningful opportunity to explore issues of death, memorials, and government. He was rapt for reasons beyond the long string of cars winding through the streets of DC.
We were leaving for dinner around the time Senator Kennedy was being laid to rest, but Milo resisted, despite our going to his favorite restaurant. “It’ll be on in highlights and replays for days,” we assured him.
“What are highlights?” he asked.
“Moments of an event they play over and over again,” we explained.
“Okay,” he said, suspiciously.
At dinner Lars received an email from a friend who was near a wildfire in southern California; the friend had sent pictures of the blaze as it crept closer to where he worked. “Why is there a fire?” Milo asked. We explained that weather conditions or human error could have contributed. We told him about friends who fought fires, pilots for airplanes who dropped retardant and supplies to firefighters on the ground. Milo was unusually silent, while Lars and I chatted about the more mundane issues of the day, none of which had to do with Edward Kennedy or conflagrations.
Suddenly Milo waved his hand in a gesture of apocalyptic soothsaying and the voice of a tiny prophet rose over our table. “There’s two things,” he began, “One, the forest fire. Two, the funeral of Tedward Kennedy. These are happening today. Planes flying, forests burning, people dying…” He continued like a tiny Cassandra, crafting a surreal juxtaposition between the issues in his day and our Udon noodles.
“You have an apocalyptic vision, son,” I said.
Lars laughed. He knew it personally—his childhood was informed by knowing more about the conflict in the Middle East at eleven than most adults will in their lifetime. He was that kid.
But it occurred to me as I watched our small oracle that Milo was trying to make sense of things he couldn’t fit into his world view. He was shaken by the impermanence of the forest and of this man who no longer walked among other men. Milo was scared, and trying to process the complicated feelings he had about both fire (which has always scared him) and dying, which he had never witnessed but was trying to understand. I realized I needed to intervene.
But how does one guide the conversation without minimizing its import? “There are scary things in the world,” I began. “People die, forests burn, bad things happen. Not just bad things, but sad things.”
Seriously, how does one address these issues?
“We hear about these things, the bad things, because they scare us. People want to talk about things that scare us, so they’re on the news all the time. But nobody talks about the good things because they’re boring. No one talks about the rest of life because it’s just like our lives: people work, they go to school, eat food and sleep. Everywhere you go people are doing the same things. Maybe they eat and sleep in different ways, but they still do it. The world is an amazing and wonderful place. Most people are kind. And good things happen all the time.”
He looked skeptical.
“And there are trees that can’t make baby trees if there isn’t a forest fire. Their seedpods won’t even sprout unless the heat from the fire opens them. Fire is a part of life and a good part of nature. Nature needs fire.”
Milo ate the rest of dinner without too much brimstone philosophizing.
The next morning we woke up together.
“Can I turn this on?” Milo asked, holding the TV remote.
“Can you find the highlights of Tedward Kennedy’s funeral?”
We spent the morning watching Face the Nation and Meet the Press.
Doctor’s visits weren’t fraught with the same level of anxiety as we adapted to the cycles of Dad’s illness and its maintenance. His foot was a nagging annoyance but not terrible; he stopped using a cane. He was chipper, and still thought that his illness was something about which to laugh, not cry.
But it was the Summer of Sick, no matter how or when his illness reached its conclusion. It began on my birthday, and with summer winding to its end, our lives had changed. Doctor's offices, once infrequent stopovers for Dad, were a necessity. He was smaller now, more frail, and I was always concerned about him though he wished it wasn’t so. His priorities had changed; they were quieter, but more precious. No grand gestures any longer, but small ones made for people he loved.
Milo was going to kindergarten, a reminder that life was fresh and young and growing, that the milestones were about more than just endings, but beginnings too. I was moving into the next stage as well, trying to figure out what I would do with all the time I didn’t have before. Would I start my graphic design business in earnest? Would I write? Would I actually get the laundry done?
We’d moved through the first step of Dad’s Last Step. The days were perceptibly shorter than just a few weeks before, the light more golden. The days were hot, but there was the crispness of apples in the mornings. Our backyard chickens, dopey girls, went to bed earlier, diurnal critters mapped in nature by the very light changing.
Dad was moving forward too. His steps were shallower and lighter on the earth, but no less profound.