My son Dalen is a worrier. He worries about big things like mass extinction and little things like being late for school and not wearing the right color clothes for Spirit Day. When his mind begins to spin and his fingers begin to twist, I think of myself at that age.
I was an anxious kid. I worried about thunderstorms and math tests and lingering coughs. But more than anything, I worried about death. I was obsessed with it, in fact. Every time my parents were 10 minutes late to pick me up (always) I imagined them buried under a monstrous tractor trailer. When my little brother started going out with his friends, I stayed up and waited for him long after my parents had gone to bed. And when my dad complained of chest discomfort, I didn’t sleep for a month.
Death lurked behind every doorway, sneaked in through every crack in the ceiling, crawled under the floor, slithered into my daydreams, and lingered long into the night.
When I worried, my dad would sit me in his lap and ask me, “How many times have you worried about someone you love dying?”
“A million,” I’d say.
“And how many times did they die?”
“So, the odds are in your favor.” And he’d smile and hug me and I’d feel a little bit better.
I can’t use those words of comfort with Dalen, though. Five years ago, my sister-in-law died in a horrible car accident, leaving behind my three nephews, my son’s cousins, who ranged from 1 to 6 years old.
Her death is the silent thread that pulls at all of us in our family, snipping away our differences, weaving us into a thick net of protection and love for those three ginger-haired imps.
My nephews rarely talk about their mom. In fact, even the week that she died, they were shockingly normal, roaming around my parents’ farm and making castles out of mud.
Their lives have changed a lot since then. My brother has re-married. They have a step-brother and a newborn baby sister. They still don’t mention their mom much, but she’s there, in their freckled faces and unexpected bursts of laughter.
They are happy, sweet, well-mannered, independent, resilient kids. They can cook pancakes, do their own laundry, and catch and gut their own fish. Every time we see them I am more and more amazed.
But, what amazes me most of all about them is that they are not anxious kids. When there’s a sick grandparent or an approaching storm, they’re the ones who comfort my kids.
I’ve learned from these boys. I’ve learned that kids are capable of far more than we expect of them. I’ve learned that family love goes much deeper than I ever thought possible. But, most of all, I’ve learned life is too short, too fragile, too precious to waste one more second on worrying.
So, when Dalen comes to me at night with his quivering lips and thumping heart, I hold him close to me and wait until his breathing is regular and his silent tears have dried. Then I ask him how his day was and what he’s looking forward to and what exciting things the next week holds.
Because hoping and dreaming and anticipating might not stop people we love from dying, but they sure do keep us alive, every precious minute that we are given on this earth.