A Dead Squirrel and Some Thoughts on Mortality

A couple days ago, Kiddo returned home from an afternoon with Ang. He sat at the kitchen table, eating a snack of lunchbox leftovers and I worked on the pile of dishes at the sink. Our conversation was fairly mundane when he suddenly switched gears.

"I saw a dead squirrel today." he announced to me. This was the first time he'd mentioned the word 'dead' to me, as I usually refer to dead bugs as "not alive anymore", which I find to be more instructive initially. I wasn't upset that Ang had used the "D-Word", either. Dead is dead, right?

"Oh." I waited a beat for him to say more, then asked him "Was it not-moving dead or yucky dead?" This is my gentle way of determining if the squirrel in question was peacefully lying in state, or full-on roadkill.

"It was not-moving dead" he replied, then took another bite of his sandwich.  I washed another dish, and then he asked, "Mama, why do things get dead?"

Well, that was an open-ended question. Since he's so young, and this was our first real conversation that had included the word "dead",  I kept the answer close to the topic at hand. "Hmm. That's an interesting question. There are lots of reasons squirrels die. Some of them fall out of those high trees, or off the power lines. Some of them run out into the street and get hit by a car. Sometimes squirrels have lived a long life, and their body is all done being alive and the squirrel dies." I avoided talking about squirrels getting sick or their bodies growing tired when they are old because talking about 'getting sick/tired and dying" can be very confusing to young children. What if they get sick? Or tired? I didn't want him to think he'd die because he was sick or tired.  I didn't mention that other animals hunt squirrels, either, because we haven't done a lot of talking about animals hunting and killing each other at this point. Someday it will come up, but for now I was keeping things pretty simple.
Kiddo seemed content with my explanation and moved on to other topics--his preschool day, what he was eating. But our short conversation stayed with me and made me wonder about what I had to offer in regard to further inquiries.

I myself  have been of the belief for a very long time that when you're dead, you're dead. Joe and I both joke, in all seriousness, that we take comfort in this idea. I personally don't want to live on forever and ever, and it's not even about the company I might keep in heaven or anything of that nature. I just like the idea that we all get one turn on the ride and we do our best to leave the place better than we found it. Sometimes I'll joke that "I don't believe in hell, but there's gotta be a place for those so-and-so's to go when they're done screwing it up for the rest of us". Even then, though, I don't have it in myself to wish eternal punishment on anyone, no matter how heinous they are. Eternity? Even if it's in a nice, happy place, just the thought of it makes me tired.

I take solace in this dead-is-dead notion the way most people take comfort in the peaceful, harp-filled hereafter. But I'm also turning forty in a week, so I've had a lot of time to digest this information. My little boy? So alive and aglow with life, with not even a dead-pet experience of death? What will I tell him? That our bodies go back into the earth, and our souls become stardust, dissipating and heading out into the ether, perhaps to join other bits of stardust in becoming a new soul someday?

A few weeks before my son was born, Kurt Vonnegut passed. Outspoken and a champion of humanity, Vonnegut's writings have inspired me for years. I was on a walk with Joe, big belly leading the way, when he told me that Vonnegut was gone. It wasn't hormones that had made me tear up either--it was one of the good ones, gone. "I hope our Kiddo gets a little bit of him, somehow," I told Joe, and he agreed. Whether that stardust goes on to contribute to the next generations, we'll never know. But I'd like to think that spirit of humanity, that spark of life, lives on in the eyes of the babies who come into our world, day after day. I see that light of life in my son's eyes and know that this is his gift to the world right now, his enthusiasm and joie de vivre. May it live on for a long, long time.


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