THE FIRST THREE DEATHS that I can recall happened by the time I turned five. I didn’t really understand death then, and to this day I’m still not sure what it means, exactly. It’s a cessation, to be sure, but other than that I don’t find it particularly notable. I believe in endings but not loss.
Hank was my first dog. I’ve only the dimmest memories of what he looked like, but I know he was big and he was white. Because of Hank, I like white dogs, the name Hank, and don’t much like small dogs. Behind our house, past a low fence and a large blackberry bush was a pasture with horses and a barn. Hank liked to sneak off to play with the horses. My friend Danny and I liked to sneak off to play in the barn. One day, a horse decided to play back and kicked Hank hard in the head. He wobbled home and then to the vet but not back home again.
On a night soon after this, our living room wall started flashing red and blue. It was an ambulance come for Paul next door. Paul was sick with something. I don’t think it was cancer. Multiple sclerosis maybe. He lived with his parents and was friends with my brothers and sisters. The day before I had shown him a little plastic slot machine that, when you pulled the lever, spit water in your face. He found it funny and asked if he could borrow it. I said yes and when I found out he died, I was really upset that I’d never get my little slot machine back. I recall the details of that slot machine clearly, but very few of Paul. The neighbor girl on the other side of us died of anorexia, but I’m pretty sure that was after I turned five.
Grandpa fell down a hole and died when we were visiting him in Palm Springs. What actually happened was emphysema took him out in the night, but my memory is of mom telling me that he’d gone out for a walk in the desert and fell into a hole. There was no wailing or grief as dad cooked us pancakes the next morning. This indifference was explained much later when I learned that his son and wife hated him for different reasons. Grandpa was a well-respected early founder of Palm Springs, but he was horrible on the home front. My only other memory of this visit is the next day flying paper airplanes with my father in the backyard. Bright white paper quick stained by red dirt.
I’m thinking maybe how you process death the first few times creates a template for how you deal with it later. My parents didn’t make a big deal out of it. This is probably why I don’t either. Any sadness I feel about these three deaths is something felt years later, after I became capable of attaching meaningful connections, even posthumously, to people and things. Now, I can look back and get a sense of severing, but it’s really just sleight-of-mind. Very young kids react to death by mimicking of the reactions of others. They don’t really get or feel it, and that’s a very good thing. Because, really, there’s nothing to get.
[The “Life Moments” series consists of half-hour morning exercises. I sit, let a memory bubble up and type it out …. with the clock set for one half hour. Doesn’t leave much time for worrying about grammar or editing. Just get the stuff out the door. All associated photos are mine.]