Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is This Heaven?

by Maggie Mayall

True story:

When my dad died in 1988, we'd been gathered ‘round him holding vigil for 2 weeks or so at the V.A. hospital in Denver. At only 62, his heart had given out and was damaged beyond repair. Slowly, his body was shutting down, organ by organ. I was lucky to be there with him at the end—truly one of the most heartbreaking and scary and spiritual and heavy experiences I have ever had.  Our son Zak, who was only 4½ at the time, hadn’t been allowed into the ICU to see him at all during that time. I think it would have been too scary for such a little one to see his grandpa all hooked up with breathing tubes, IV’s and catheters anyway. So my husband John did coloring books with him out in the waiting room and took him to the zoo.

There are good deaths and there are ugly deaths, and we don’t get a whole lot of choice about which we are going to have.  I believe it’s a crapshoot and a lot like childbirth—you can make all the arrangements you want, but when the time comes you never know exactly how it’s going to come down. A good death would be peacefully dying in your sleep in a good dream or dropping while pruning roses—last breath as you gaze up to a beautiful blue sky. A bad death is thrashing away for weeks or months, in pain and/or mental agony. Both my parents died bad deaths, unfortunately—a very sad and hard thing to watch.

When John and Zak got back from the zoo, his red-eyed mommy explained to him that Grandpa had just died and he’d gone up to heaven. At that age, he really didn’t quite understand what “died” really meant, though, which of course is developmentally appropriate. But being a fairly new parent myself, the next couple of days were about making things up on the fly to help him get through it.

“So what’s heaven, mommy?”

“Hmm. Well, you know how Grandpa liked fishing so much? Remember when Grandpa took you fishing and you caught a rainbow trout? Well I think that what happens when you go to heaven is your spirit goes to a special place—a place with God. And for those of us left here on earth, your spirit lives on in a place that was most beautiful and special for you. For Grandpa, I think his spirit will live on in the rainbow trout. So from now on, whenever you look in the river, you can see Grandpa’s spirit in the colors of the rainbow trout swimming by. That would be heaven for Grandpa.”

As we made our arrangements for his cremation and memorial, it was decided that because all of us big people had been hanging out with my dad thrashing about in a hospital for so long, we would have a “natural” viewing, so that we could see him one last time. My dad would have approved, as he was a free spirit and would not have condoned embalming him, putting makeup on him, dressing him up and parading him around in a casket.

The day of the viewing, all of us big people were talking about “going to see Grandpa,” followed by bursts of sniffles or outright wailing, hugs and courageous smiles.  On our way to the funeral home, Zak asked again and again, “Where are we going?”  And I told him, “We’re going to go see Grandpa one last time, Zak,” as bravely as I could, oblivious to the fact that he was getting confused.

So I pulled into the parking lot with my rental car and turned the engine off and took a moment to breathe and collect myself. In that moment of silence, my little Zak piped up in the back seat, “Is this heaven?”

Oh, I loved him as much in that moment as ever.  No, this isn't heaven, honey. This is the funeral home.

John and I decided it was ok to let Zak see Grandpa. You never know until you know when it comes to what’s right for your kid. It was ok for Zak. He was still young enough to not quite be traumatized but old enough to benefit from the visual experience of seeing his Grandpa one last time.

When we walked into the viewing room, there was my dad’s body, quiet and relaxed. He looked peaceful. It was a relief. And he looked really small. I was holding Zak’s hand tight and then bent down to put my arm around his little shoulders. He looked up, surveyed the sight of his Grandpa’s quiet repose, blinked, and said, “Where’s the rest of him?”

Well, that’s the part that we see in the colors of the rainbow trout, my lovely child.