By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
"Granny -- what happens to you when you die?"
The question comes from Brooks, my grandson. We are all sitting at the kitchen table: Granny and Brooks, age 7, and his cousins Sophia, 6, and Lila, 4. Their mothers (my two daughters) are upstairs, sleeping in, and Granny is in charge.
What happens when you die? Too early for this! I get the coffeemaker going, find the Cheerios, pour the milk.
"Yeah, Granny, what happens?" Sophia asks.
I dissemble. "Well, I'm pretty young," I begin. "I'm probably not going to die for a while." Finally the coffee is ready, and I pour myself a cup. Maybe we can now talk about something else.
Silence. Three pairs of brown eyes stare at me. The children wait for an answer.
"Well, I won't be here anymore," I mumble and take another sip of coffee. The children look confused. Not here? Not in the house? Brooks points to the kitchen cabinets. "But what happens to all your stuff?" he asks. That's easier to answer: "Your parents will take care of the stuff," I say brightly. The children, only slightly reassured, keep staring at me. I have to focus on the question.
Perhaps this is one of the gifts of grandchildren: to keep us focused on the issues that really matter. News events dominate daily conversation: the home mortgage meltdown, a bombing in Pakistan, the race for the presidency. But what about the Big One? Death. Hard enough to explain subprime loans to young children, let alone al-Qaeda or even the electoral college. How to explain the roll of generations, the natural cycle of birth, life and death? The notion of peace everlasting? Sophia, Lila and Brooks are so young. Life lies ahead of them.
"When I die, my body will be gone," I begin. "But one part of me never dies. My love for you never dies. When I die, all my love jumps inside of you," and I turn to Brooks and tickle his chest. He smiles. Then I tickle Sophia and Lila. All my love jumping inside you. More giggles.
"You know, let's say you have a big test one day and you're nervous. Just before the test, you can take a deep breath and say to yourself: 'My granny loves me!' "
"That's great, Granny," Brooks says.
"I have an idea," Sophia says. "What if we put a picture of you on the wall and then when we get up we can say: 'Good morning, Granny!' "
"That would be wonderful," I say. "We'll always be in touch."
"Good morning, Granny," they all shout, and burst out laughing.
Lila waves her hand at me. She hasn't touched her Cheerios: "Hi, Granny!" I blow her a kiss. "Can I have a waffle?" she asks.
I smile. It's all about love. The most precious gift I can give these youngsters is a legacy of love. And they give me the opportunity to plant the seeds of caring in the next generation. In death, the love endures. In life, the acts of caring, big and small, create a state of "relatedness," of being involved in the lives of people you care about.
All the research shows that "relatedness" is key to health and well-being as people grow older. Everyone needs an intimate circle of family members and friends. According to psychologist Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, older men and women may have smaller social networks, but they often have stronger core circles of people who are essential to their lives.
In our family, a state of "relatedness" is reinforced by the annual ritual of coming together in the summer on an island in Maine.
One late afternoon, I am hurrying to set up for a party for my younger daughter's 10th wedding anniversary. The clan gathers: my intimate circle and the larger circle of extended family and friends. The guests arrive: toddlers and teenagers, parents and grandparents; the formerly married, the never married, the currently married and the newly married.
One by one, they stand up to give a toast, sing a song, tell a story.
I look out at the mass of youngsters screaming across the field; they weren't here 10 years ago. A whole new generation has been born. I find my cousin, my playmate from when we were their age so long ago. You must remember this. We hug. A soft breeze comes in from the southwest. The ferry goes by. The children take turns on the swing. More hugs, more laughter.
But there is also a note of sorrow: Another cousin, who is in his 80s, is in hospice care now. Bittersweet are these milestone celebrations.
What happens, Granny, when you die?
An eagle flies in and sits on a nearby tree. Everyone stops and looks: Majestic, proud, defiant, the eagle turns its profile to the crowd. Silence . . . awe. Look! Look! Catch a glimpse before it goes. And then the eagle spreads its wings and flies away.
I survey the gathering and see interlocking circles of couples and individuals, bound together by shared experience and the ties of love, loss and friendship. These circles sustain and embrace us. On the front lines of longevity, we have a mission: to keep loving and caring for others, to steward future generations, to craft a legacy by weaving our past into the present.
And then we fly away.
The children are ready for cake and ice cream.
"Hi, Granny!" Good morning, Granny.