Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First wake

My dad's Uncle George died the day before Thanksgiving (last week).  As I prepared to go to the wake on Sunday, Jake asked where I was going. 

Me: Papa's uncle died and TT and I are going with Gram'ma Bella to the wake.
Jake: What's a wake?
Me: Well, when someone dies, there is usually a wake and a funeral... Or some kind of ceremony where you can go say goodbye, and go hug the family and tell them that you are sorry about losing the person they loved.
Jake: Who did they lose?
Me: Well, Papa's uncle George died.  So Papa's cousins lost their dad, and Papa's aunt lost her husband.  When someone dies, we say we "lost" them.
Jake: Oh.

I absentmindedly asked Jake if he wanted to go.  It wasn't an accident exactly.  He seemed interested and there is something I want to try to teach these boys early on about life being special and about death being a part of life. And about what it means to belong to a clan of people- that you have respect and are generous with your time, and sometimes you stop what you are doing to show up and bare witness at these events. 

Jake: Maybe... I have to think about it.
Me: okay (In my head: "ut oh")

(I never thought he'd agree...
After a few minutes, I thought of a way to deter my 'soft pants' loving boy...)

Me: You know, if you go, you have to put some dress clothes on.
Jake: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, I am going to put work clothes on and you will have to dress up.
J: Like, in what?
Me: Like a sweater, or a shirt and tie, and church pants and shoes.
J: What sweater?
Me: I don't know... like the new one that TT bought you...

(After a few more minutes...)

Jake: I'll wear a tie.

Me: Oh... Okay. (pause)  So, we should talk about what it will be like...  At a wake, there is usually a box called a coffin that the person who has died will be laying in.  And there will be flowers and pictures and his family will be there and we will go through and hug all of his family- Papa's aunts and uncles and cousins.
Jake: Okay.
Me: And at some wakes the coffin is closed and you can't see the person inside but sometimes the coffin is open and you will see the person.
Me: Oh, no... He will look like he's sleeping.  He will have his clothes on and of course all his hair and his skin... Maybe his eyeglasses...
Jake: (interrupting) HE HAS EYEGLASSES?!?  (The idea that he might see eye glasses seemed as shocking to him as the idea that me might see a skeleton.)
Me: (giggling) I don't know... maybe he does or maybe he doesn't...  The coffin might be closed, but it might be open.  And he will look like he is sleeping, but he won't be sleeping because he isn't alive anymore; remember how we talked about what happens when a person dies?
Jake: Yes.
Me: Their heart doesn't beat anymore, and they don't breathe, and their body is still there, but their spirit isn't inside their body...  ?
Jake: Yes.
Me: Do you still want to go?

Jake: Yeah, but I want to wear the red tie...

Katy likes to tell people that before she met me, she had never been to a wake or funeral.  And now she never stops going to them.  She is gracious about this and says that if it weren't for me, she would have had no idea how to conduct herself at her grandmother's funeral.  I almost skipped Uncle George's wake, but it was at her "it's the right thing to do" urging that I was getting dressed to go.  As a former ICU nurse, I'm more confortable than the average bear with corpses.  I sometimes have to stop and remind myself that these things can upset "lay people".  There are some funerals that children should NOT attend.  Very tragic, unexpected deaths... funerals where the adults are generally falling apart and so grief stricken that they are not able to look out for the emotional well being of kids in the room...

When our friend Liz's husband died leaving her widowed with 4 children (3 of the 4 were grade school age and younger), of all of the things she did that impressed me, none impressed me more than her plan for the kids.  After a brief appearance at the wake, she had them brought back to the house where Katy and I played with them and fed them dinner and got them to bed.  Of course they had to go to their dad's wake, but the emotions were too intense and the line at the funeral home too long to subject them to the entire event.

When my friend John died, I have this stark memory of his nieces a few feet from the coffin only 6 or 7 or 8 years old and my brain was forming the judgemental thought, "What are these parents doing letting their kids just hang around here near the casket all night?!?" when their kiddie conversation came into auditory focus:

Munchkin 1: Do you know why he doesn't look like himself?
Munchkin 2: No?  Do you?
Munchkin 1: I think it's because his soul has left his body
Munchkin 2: Yeah, so it isn't really him anymore... just his body.

I had the urge to stoop down to eye level and grip their shoulders gently and tell them that he didn't look like himself because the mortician in this joint isn't worth shit and has clearly never heard of blush or hair gel... but as I exhaled, the psycho urge passed and I realized that (of course) these children were wiser and more balanced than I.  Truthfully, kids just don't have the baggage that we do.  They don't usually bring their accumulated insecurities and fears into the room; or if they do, their accumulation is miniscule as not to even register.

When my mom saw Jake at the funeral home, she tried to hide from me that she was a little freaked out, asking several times, "Aren't you worried that he will have nightmares?"

And here's the thing.  Jake already has nightmares.  He's just like his freakin' moms.  A few weeks ago he crawled into our bed and told us he dreampt that there was a fire and he was trying to save Milo.  [A FIRE?!?! Seriously?  Where did that fear come from, Disney?!? I promise, we've never talked about fires around the dinner table...]  And last week, he was crying because he dreamed that his grandparents left without saying goodbye.  Some kids have more bad dreams than others.  I've got to try to find some books to see if there's a way to teach or talk your kids out of bad dreams, because I was one of those kids.  At a very early age, I dreamed scary, stressful things.  I still think that is part of the reason I stay up so late- Some of those dreams are sad and exhausting- maybe it's better just to stay awake.

Anyway, I've come to believe that 1) My dreams are not necessarily premonitions.  2) Bad dreams are not something that always happens because of unrest in your conscious life.  It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with your perception of safety or security.  I know this because I was a very safe, protected, nurtured, sheltered child.  And so are our boys. 

Jake is a thinker and he reasons things out.  He likes to be prepared.  And even though Milo is comparitively our "spontaneous frat boy"... He also is a thinker, and a dreamer. 

"You are not quite right" is what I've heard in response to the explanation that this first wake was a "dry run" for Jake.  He will have to see some people he loves in coffins in the coming years and decades and this was his first.  I'm sure we will have follow up conversations and clarifications, but he came through the event without a flinch or twitch or question.  This was just an experience to him.  Not positive.  Not negative.  Not even that big of a deal.  Just something to stash away in his mental filing cabinet.

My working theory is sometimes (maybe) the sheltering and protecting that we do for kids is unnecessary. Sometimes (maybe) that "protecting" contributes to anxiety and unsettled emotions.  (Emotions like, "What if I am not good enough? What if I can't handle all that I am asked to handle?") Trying to pad the sharp corners of the world isn't what I want to accomplish as a parent.  Life is full of struggle and sadness, disappointment and grief.  Our job is to teach them how to deal with downsides, show them that they can handle uncomfortable situations.  Create a time and space where they can safely learn to be vulnerable and successful in struggle.  I kind of believe that is the only way to fully appreciate joy and love.

Uncle George's wake was the perfect opportunity for Jake to see death. To see a body that was without it's spirit. Someone that he didn't know. An event that had no personal sadness or confusion attached to it.  He observed a portion of the ritual without experiencing the associated loss/discomfort.

And when a kid that cries in the morning trying to decide what pants to wear (because he sometimes has trouble making decisions). When that kid tells me he wants to put on a tie and come with me to a wake, I'll go ahead and take him at his word.  I won't tell him he can't handle it.  I will stand next to him and let him see one way death can look.  Because I trust Jake.  Even at this young age, he is so trustworthy.

And I trust myself.  I know if we stumble into a room or situation that upsets him, I will be able to talk him through that discomfort.  I know Katy will always help me with that.  I know she and I will resist the urge to remove painful obstacles so that our boys can learn to overcome difficulties (at least a bit) on their own.  It won't always be easy.  Sometimes we will fail by doing too much for them and protecting them too vigilantly and either forgetting to let them struggle or losing our steel when confronted by the reality of their discomfort.  But we're lucky...

These boys already have the minds and hearts of strong, wise men.  I'm so proud of them.


Teri said...

beautiful as always

MamaDanaMunga said...

Well said, Tracy. The best way to 'protect' our child's heart is to walk through the struggles with them--to show that life hurts sometimes, but this is how families make it through--together. And we're still ok. To pretend life isn't hard, or painful, or sad isn't protective. It's leaving your child vulnerable. Don and I were the only parents who brought our children to Gramma Richard's funeral. (Of course Grace insisted she saw Gramma move....)

Pronto said...

Tracy- what a wonderful mom you are...and what a brilliant writer. Jake and Milo are so very lucky to have you and Katy in their corner.

Eileen said...

Again, I am in the place to say you two are smart mommies. My first wake was my beloved granny-at age 18-and I had no perspective no idea, and I was too old to be guided. You did the best thing in the world by introducing "life" to him in a safe way-because all life leads to death, and if you see the process, you can better handle it.
Brava girls.
Love you-Eileen