Saturday, February 5, 2011

Autism diaries XXIV: Death

J first learned about death when he was 4. He'd discovered his first computer game, Bugdom, and whenever his bug was smashed by a foot or consumed by a giant slug, or died any of the other deaths that the different levels that Bugdom has to offer, he'd restart the game with a new bug and stoically carry on.

"What happens if the bug falls into a lava pool again?" I asked him once.

"Get new bug!" he cried out, grinning ear to ear.

"But what happens when you fall into a lava pool?"

"Get new J!" he answered with equal glee.

"But there is no new J!" I blurted out, struck by the consequences of J apparently thinking he'd live forever no matter how careless he was. Even more stricken than I was, J burst into tears.

Our first Dialog about Death began, and I reassured him that most people live into their 70's or 80's. I pointed to Granddaddy, his 90 year old great grandfather. Soon he was scouring the obituary pages to verify my claims. He asked me what happened to dead bodies, and I told him the various options. Shortly thereafter he found a phone and called up a grownup friend of ours. "When you die, do you want to be burned, buried, or given to science," he yelled into the receiver as soon as she said "Hello." ("Burned," she answered, not missing a beat). He asked me repeatedly what's the longest people live, and I gave him a nice round number.

Living to one hundred became his personal goal. And, like every other drive of his, I tried to milk it to its fullest. "Don't put too much salt on that--salt is bad for your heart;" "Don't use too much butter;" "You need to eat the skin of the apple, too. Apple skins are very good for you. Granddaddy always eats apple skins." The effects of this last admonition were particularly striking. Ever since he was 1 1/2, J, apple-fiend though he was, had refused to eat apple skins, leaving a yucky trail of chewed up skins wherever he went. As soon as he heard about Granddaddy's habits, he started eating them again--religiously.

Granddaddy intrigued him. Every time we visited him, J would ask how old he was. Once when he answered 96, J seemed particularly impressed, perhaps realizing that Granddaddy was now over halfway through his presumably final decade. He turned from Granddaddy to the rest of us and announced, loudly, that "Granddaddy is almost dead." (Granddaddy laughed heartily, along with the rest of us.) When Granddaddy turned 97, he asked him "How much longer do you think you will live?" ("I think I will live two or three more years," Granddaddy answered, not missing a beat).

This past November we celebrated Granddaddy's 100th birthday. J was very excited about the festivities, and asked about them repeatedly in the weeks leading up. After briefly checking in with Granddaddy on the day thereof, however, he was quickly distracted by even more pressing things: the many, many ceiling fans at Granddaddy's retirement home--a frequent subject of conversation and reminiscence.

Granddaddy died this past Tuesday evening (peacefully, in his sleep). When I told J, he looked stricken. But like so many other things, his true feelings remain a mystery. Was he upset that he'd lost his only remaining great grandparent? That he'd never see those fans again? Or that 100 really is the outer limit, no matter how little salt, how little butter, and how many apple skins you eat?


The Math Witch said...

Sweet memories. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Beautiful story Katie! Condolences and admiration.

Catherine said...


Geniferous said...

I'm sorry for your loss. The best book I've read about death is "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy. When Ivan Ilych died: "Each one thought or felt, 'Well, he's dead but I'm alive!'"