Even if I had tried I could not have shielded their childhoods from death. It came when it did and they saw — they had to see — that we, their parents, their protectors, were powerless to stop it. Ten days after my brother-in-law left life behind too soon, succumbing to the heroin habit he had kept hidden from all of us for years, I sat on a bench in the garden of our rented home with my son, Duncan, age four, watching the comings and goings of birds and butterflies. His older brother was off at school, the younger one napping, and so, for the moment, it was just the two of us. Another blue-sky California day, breeze on my face, sun in my hair, but in my mind I was back in Boston, taking my turn among the mourners sending shovelfuls of damp dirt down onto that stark pine box too far below in the cold, dark earth. It was impossible that the body he had inhabited so soon before was down there. Forever. Never to be seen or heard or held again. My husband played his brother’s guitar and sang through his grief into the wind and spitting rain. His only sibling, the only one to share his parentage and childhood, was gone. It wasn’t the happiest of childhoods, but as brothers, they had their moments.
Duncan had cried and clung to his uncle the last time we saw him, the pain of saying goodbye until who knows when. Until the grown-ups decided. It wasn’t fair but that’s how it goes when you’re a kid and the people you love insist on living scattered, far-flung existences out of your loving grasp. I had peeled his fingers off his uncle’s neck, laughing, shushing, promising that everything was okay — no need to fuss, we would see each other again soon. How was I to know that was the end? How were we to foretell that there would be no lifetime of visits to come?
I don’t remember the children crying when we told them the news of the biggest tragedy of their young lives. Perhaps such finality was too incomprehensible to them to be understood in a moment. Or maybe my own tears left no room for theirs.
“Mommy?” said Duncan. I was slow to respond, lost in thought. He put his little hand in mine, waiting.
“Yes?” I said at last.
“When people die, they get buried.”
“Yes,” I sighed. “That’s true.”
“People bury them.”
“They are the buriers.”
“But, Mommy, when the buriers die, who buries them?”
“But… who buries those buriers when they die? Animals?”
“Oh, honey,” I said. “There are always new people coming along.”
We both fell into silence. I don’t know if it was because I had become desensitized, numbed through too many recent hours spent in contemplation of life and death, or if it was because the goodness of the moment, side-by-side on a bench with my boy, was too undeniable to discount, but for whatever reason, I found myself surprisingly peaceful and dry-eyed. Duncan laid his warm head in my lap and I envisioned the whole vast interwoven fabric of life, individuals mushrooming briefly before settling back into the everlasting mycelium. Human beings, oak trees, blue whales, tortoises, humming birds, and honeybees: all of us enmeshed, blessed, and doomed. And while death as a concept may never cease to be personally intolerable, at least in the abstract I saw it could be acceptable, beautiful even — a symphony, notes rising and falling in concord for millennia.
But all of this was much too heavy and cerebral for the four-year-old at my side. In two years he had lost two beloved family dogs, all three of his remaining great-grandparents, and now his uncle.
“How you doing, Duncan?” I asked.
“I mean, you’re very quiet. What are you thinking?”
“I was just wondering about the new people.”
“Yeah. Like, where do they come from? And… and what do their spaceships look like?”
My smile came slowly like a forgotten thing to my tired eyes, my hurting heart. Sometimes I wished I could reside in the world of Duncan’s imagining, a place of limitless possibility where celestial beings descend among us to bury our dead.
Back when he was a toddler, not much over a year, we came out one morning in July to find a dead rabbit on the edge of our lawn. This was when still lived in Pennsylvania and summertime meant thunderstorms. We had had one the night before and the air was fresh with recent rain, everything clean and green. Duncan, clad only in a diaper and rain boots, his red curls a shock against his milky skin, squatted down beside his big brother to examine the small carcass. A dark, thin trail of blood across the end of the driveway marked the last distance it had traveled in this life.
“Is it all the way dead?” asked Wyatt, the older one, a preschooler at the time.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s very… unusual,” he said, trying out a new bit of vocabulary.
Duncan said nothing, just looked on mildly, his brown eyes wide and bright, accepting of all that was before him.
We buried the rabbit beneath the maple tree at the end of our driveway, Wyatt brimming with unsentimental curiosity about what would happen to its body next. I talked about decomposition, nourishing the soil, old life begetting new. Duncan watched awhile and then clomped off looking for mud and puddles. Our new neighbor across the street came out to plant a flowering vine by her mailbox. Wyatt tugged on my shirt, pointing.
She lived alone, save a dog and a cat, and had that special bemused interest in children reserved for those who have none of their own to mind. Duncan was too busy poking a twig into the soggy ground to be bothered with neighborly visits, so I let Wyatt go over on his own. He marched across our quiet street, straight through the puddles, proud of his independence and the impenetrability of his boots. He wasted no time on pleasantries.
“Hey! Hey guess what happened? Guess what, Cora? A rabbit got hitted by a car and it died on our grass — there was blood on it — and we digged a hole and put it in and covered it up with dirt and,” he took a breath, “now it’s under that tree!”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback, “That’s… I… I’m so sorry. At least… he’s in a better place now?”
“What?” said Wyatt. “Didn’t you hear me? The rabbit’s dead.”
She faltered, looking to us across the road, unsure of how to navigate this unexpected turn in conversation but she needn’t have worried: Wyatt had it all figured out.
“Yep,” he said. “Bad day for the rabbit, good day for the worms.”
Wyatt asked about the rabbit for many weeks to come, so while the details of that day may have soon faded in young Duncan’s memory, the story of the rabbit under the tree was touched on again and again in his presence. It seems something of this stuck with him. In that most difficult first year after my brother-in-law’s death, Duncan spontaneously began to talk of reincarnation. Specifically, his own.
“One day, when I’m a bunny,” he would say, and by that, he meant when he came back to life in the form of a rabbit.
“How do you know you’ll be a bunny?” I would ask.
“I don’t,” he would admit, “but I think so. Might be bunny, maybe tiger, maybe flowers, but I think: bunny.”
Once I asked him, “What were you before you were Duncan?”
“How can I know that?” he scoffed. “I can’t know what Duncan was before Duncan existed. There was no brain of me!”
He could not possibly have remembered the rabbit — he had been so little then — and yet somehow I could not help imagining that in the face of a sorrow so vast, a loss so intolerable, he had turned back to his primary exposure to death. Back when it was still a fuzzy, containable thing. And he had come out a bunny.
We have moved three times since we buried that rabbit, following the trail of my husband’s academic career across the country, our four sons each born into a different home in a different town. The house we live in now, the one we hope to stay in for many years, is the only one my brother-in-law never knew about. A few months after his death, we mortgaged ourselves into oblivion to buy ourselves a solid home in a good school district and he will never see this home of ours, will never visit the kids’ schools or meet their friends. He will never know our newest baby, the one named for him, the one born two years and four months after his death. He will never stretch out his long, skinny legs in his filthy black jeans on the couch his mother bought us after our living room sat empty for half a year. He was a man of so few possessions — guitars, records, clothing to fill a suitcase or two, not much more. I wonder what he would make of our decision to hang onto a house and a town for all we are worth, giving up on our independence and mobility, shuttering ourselves into a life of relentless domesticity. He would probably think we were selling out — maybe he already did — although who knows? He loved our boys and maybe he could concede that for them, home is the world.
Half a year after his death, our first spring in our new home, the kids caught a nasty virus and I found myself stuck in the house with the lot of them for seemingly interminable days on end. We were still a family of five then, the baby, not even a glimmer on the horizon as far as we knew, and we had just brought a puppy home — my dog-baby, my four-legged son, I called him — and by the third day of our quarantine, this newest addition was running laps around the dining room table to the living room and back again, and the boys were running right along with him, barking and yelling and crashing into each other and the last of our moving boxes. They were still sick, still fighting fevers, surely still contagious, but we had to get out somewhere.
As we drove through the gates of the Mountain View Cemetery, Wyatt, now a second grader, spoke from the way back of the car.
“Mommy, I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.”
Little Milo, just two-and-a-half, piped up, “My have heebie-jeebie too!”
“Why?” I asked again.
“Because this place is scary,” said Wyatt.
“Yep, dis pace gary,” said Milo.
Duncan, a few weeks shy of his fifth birthday, spoke softly from behind my seat,
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is!” said Wyatt.
“No,” whispered Duncan. And Milo shouted, “NO!”
“Everybody stop saying no!” yelled Wyatt.
“No!” Milo cheered. “No! No! NO! NO! NO!”
“Come on, boys, please,” I said. “Don’t fight. See the hills, the flowers, the fountains…”
“I noticed them already,” said Duncan.
I peeked at him in the mirror. His cheeks were flushed and his window was down a crack. The puppy, a creamy armful of fluff and enthusiasm, stood in his lap to better reach the airflow.
“Look, Floyd likes it here,” I said.
Floyd licked the window and sneezed, his wagging tail hitting Duncan in the face.
“Yeah! Him yike it here!” said Milo, and Duncan giggled.
I thought it might be frowned upon to bring a bunch of kids and a puppy into the cemetery for a picnic, so I drove on and on, winding through hills, looking for an out-of-the-way spot to stop. It was an enormous place, seemingly endless, incredible that so much open space could exist right here in Oakland. One road led to another, all of them quiet and empty with no signs indicating where parking was permitted. At last I parked at the bottom of a small hill and let the kids and puppy come tumbling out onto the grass. We were surrounded by green and quiet, not another living soul in sight — exactly what I was hoping for.
Then I heard Duncan speak.
“These people are so beautiful,” he said.
I glanced around, expecting joggers or mourners or worse, a funeral in procession. Seeing no one, I looked back to my son. His brothers were already off climbing the hill, but he was standing at my elbow, looking… up? I followed his gaze to the trees overhead and then back to his upturned face. There he was, just smiling away at the trees.
Then it hit me: These people are so beautiful.
He meant the trees.
There was a lump in my throat. No words would come. I dabbed the corner of my eye on my sleeve and stood with him, looking up, watching the branches rustle with the breeze.
“Wish I were a tree,” I murmured.
“What?” said Duncan.
“Nothing,” I said, ruffling his hair.
We ate lunch on top of the hill, the boys picking at their food, the tangerines stinging their sore throats, and then wandered, picking daisies and looking at headstones. At first the graves were quite old, mostly from the late 1800s, the markers small and flat, overgrown with moss, words fading in the elements over time. Rounding the side of the hill, we came upon a terraced section with paved pathways, greeted by a diversity of headstones in fenced family plots. Here, by reading the names and dates of entire family groups, the outline of a life might be told through its losses:
A man who outlived his wife by four decades.
A long-lived couple buried side-by-side, just a season apart.
Adult siblings buried in the same plot as their parents, no mention of spouses or children of their own — perhaps they never married, or perhaps, in death their earliest familial ties took precedent over later ones.
Some mentioned the country of birth: b. 1872 Ireland, and I wondered whether their journey across land and sea brought all they hoped it would.
Some included epitaphs: Not dead but merely sleeping, read several. (“Which is kind of freaky if you think about it,” said Wyatt.)
One woman brought eight children into the world at the turn of the century and outlived them all. Three died in infancy, others survived the perils of early childhood only to be cut down, one after the other, along with their father, during the flu pandemic of 1918. By 1920, only one child — the sixth born, a daughter — was still alive. This last remaining child lived on into adulthood and yet, even she preceded her mother in death. It was that woman’s great misfortune to see all the days of all her children. She had to find out how each of their stories ended.
At this thought, I instinctively scanned the hillside for the three little heads belonging to me. There was Duncan, flicking pebbles down the stairs, sun glinting golden off his red hair; there was Milo on his back in a bed of clover, talking to himself, head tilted to the sky; and here came curly-headed Wyatt, meandering down the path, Floyd sniffing along at his heels. Did it make it any easier for that other mother to accept her losses to be living in a time when death was seemingly always at hand? High infant and maternal mortality, both World Wars, the 1906 earthquake and fires, the flu pandemic, the Great Depression.
“Guess what?” Wyatt called out and then, seeing my face, stopped short. “Why do you look upset?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“I was just thinking about this woman buried here.”
“That makes you sad?”
“A little bit.”
“Was she your friend?”
“No, no she died a long time ago.”
“Oh,” he said. He picked the petals off the head of a daisy, letting them flutter to his feet, and then flicked the head away. “So why’re you sad?”
“Well,” I said, searching his unlined face, his wide-set eyes. “Well, I guess, because life is so wonderful and it’s also terrible at the same time.”
He seemed to more or less discount this remark entirely, launching instead into what he came to tell me in the first place.
“Know what I was thinking?”
“What if somebody magicked this place and made it so if you touched a person’s name, that person would come alive? Like, you could see them? Wouldn’t that be freaky? They’d just be walking around in front of you and stuff.”
“That’s kind of happening already,” I said, my gaze shifting to Milo in the clover, wondering if his lethargy was due to his fever returning.
“What?” Wyatt said, startling and glancing around. “Wait, what do you mean?”
I laughed, seeing his alarm, “Oh, nothing, I just mean reading these headstones I feel like I can see these people. I can imagine these families.”
“No, Mommy, that’s not what I meant. I meant in real life,” he said.
And then, without waiting for a response, he drifted away with the puppy trotting along at his side. I watched them go: a boy and his dog with no patience for a mother lost in daydreams.
There was no one around to see me smile and shake my head. I turned to the stone before me, as if to a friend, and placed two fingers on her name: Ruth.
Beloved grandmother, read the inscription. Your presence was a gift to this world.
I carried Milo back to our picnic spot. He let himself be held, arms dangling, hot cheek pressed against my neck. The older boys trailed along behind with the dog. We sat on top of the hill for a bit, delaying our trip home, each of us preoccupied with our own thoughts. I gave them cool water to drink, bananas to eat, and made daisy chains for everyone, even the puppy. The kids were subdued, sitting side-by-side without wrestling or squabbling or looking for something to climb on and jump off of. It is rare for them to inhabit a space with such quietude. It was probably the virus taking the verve out of them. Then again, the setting could have had something to do with it. Death is certainly a Big Thought and in that place, an unavoidable one.
At last, Duncan spoke.
“It was nice of these people to turn into trees for us. Maybe I’ll be a tree, too. Probably bunny, but maybe tree.”
“You can’t know that, Duncan,” said Wyatt. “You can’t know that you’ll be a bunny.”
“I said maybe.”
“No, you didn’t. You said probably.”
“Maybe is maybe and you don’t know everything, Wyatt,” said Duncan, flopping back onto the grass, squinting against the sun.
“Duncan, I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” said Wyatt.
“I do,” said Duncan and that was that.
That night, while the kids slept and my husband played his brother’s guitar, I sat in the kitchen and wrote, thinking about our visit to the cemetery. I wanted to remember what it felt like, why we went, what the kids said. I never wanted to lose the memory of Duncan smiling up at the trees. Just as the story of the rabbit seems to have stayed with him, shaping his comprehension of the circle of life, I wondered whether a childhood belief in a future as a bunny — or a tree — might sway his adult personality in some subtle way. It is a funny thought. If he were a character in a book, we would know, his author letting us in on the overarching themes and symbolisms of his life, but he is a real person and it is hard to see which of the many stories of his youth will leave telltale rings and which will fall away like leaves.
The children soon recovered from their virus. After a few days, they were able to return to school. In the weeks that followed I found my mind turning to Ruth, imagining how she might have felt about it all in the end. Was it worth it? Was the pain and fear, uncertainty and sorrow worth whatever joys her life had held? I like to think that a person whose grandchildren saw her as a gift to the world had to have made it through the suffering of her life with some spark still intact. Yet how could she have? How could anyone sustain the will to endure after such great loss? Her life was so difficult compared to mine with my healthy children and husband and access to modern medicine and technology.
Even so, I have had losses of my own and the longer I live, the more I’ll have. It is a terrible thought to realize that in every relationship I will ever have, one day one of us will lose the other. How could I have willingly brought children into such a life? What selfishness to give them existence knowing what lies at the end of it all, what pain they may suffer along the way. I would that I could protect them, keep them home and safe within the bounds of these walls, of my arms. Don’t let them give their hearts away to be broken. Keep the world at arm’s length. Don’t get attached, don’t make friends, don’t marry, don’t have children, don’t care too deeply about anything or anyone. Stay lonely and loveless, but light and free with nothing to lose.
Yet what life is there in that? None that I would want for myself. None that I would bestow upon these souls that I love the best. And so I must accept that if they are to live their lives well enough for long enough, they will be inherently replete with loss. Any alternative to that would be a loss unto itself.
And so, my sons, go on and grow like trees. Dig your roots down deep, spread your branches to the sky, immerse yourselves in the sun and the wind and rain of your time. And may I live among you such that my presence, my life within yours, is a gift, if not to the world, at least to you and your small piece of it. May I live so that if I should die, when I should die, you might carry something of me, your mother tree, deep within your heartwood for all your verdant days to come.
Lindsey Dunagan Fisher lives and writes in love and squalor in Northern California with her guitar-playing husband, four wild/sweet young sons, too many books, a dog in need of a bath, and four fish named Lightbulb, Ellie, Dragon, and Noodle. There are sticks and rocks in her house and only the occasional broken window.