I was about 18 years old sitting in a dark movie theater with my then boyfriend. The gigantic screen ahead of us playing a scene from “Tuck Everlasting.”
Fifteen-year-old Winne Foster knelt on the ground beside an enormous elm tree as water poured out from a hole near the roots. It’s not just any water. Sipping from this spring would allow her eternal life. She contemplated if being immortal was really living, or if she should allow her life to progress in a natural order, eventual death.
It’s the first time in my life that the finality of death sunk in.
The knowledge that one day I would die and there was nothing I could do about it. No magic spring in my backyard. No more wake-ups in the morning to see friends or family. The space between what little I knew about life and what may lie after seemed like a big hole, an empty void.
Anxiety seeped into the blood vessels of my brain and spread through my entire body. As my panic rose, I broke out in a cold sweat, my heart beating fast and my chest tight. My first panic attack.
Since that day at the movies, I’ve avoided thinking or speaking about death as much as possible. I’ve circumvented conversations with parents regarding final wishes and arrangements. I know as an only child it would be responsible for me to follow through, but I feared saying the words out loud would make what is an indefinite eventuality, an inevitable reality.
This past week while cleaning the kitchen for a dual Thanksgiving and birthday celebration, a renewed anxiety started to grip my heart. It wasn’t just any birthday it was my dad’s 70th. This milestone marks one in which he continues to defy the odds.
He survived three massive heart attacks in his 30s and 70 years old seemed a long way off after triple and quadruple bypass surgeries. My dad showed no signs of slowing down. Despite being retired, he’s an inspector in the town he and my mom live in, and he teaches electrical code classes. Still, as he gets older, I try harder not to entertain the thought of a world without him.
Luckily, these thoughts were interrupted when I heard a noise on the back deck. I tried to sneak a quick peek out the small kitchen window, but with sunset at 4:30 p.m., the backyard was already covered in a blanket of darkness.
Arrr roo roo. The baritone noise rumbled from the back deck.
“That sounds like my dog,” I said to my husband who was typing a paper in the next room.
Flicking on the light to the back deck, Demon’s shiny black coat illuminated. As I pulled open the slider, his white teeth flashed a smile.
“Did you leave Chappy at home? Did he show you how to speak up so I know you’re outside?” I asked.
Chappy, the white lab and Demon’s older brother, was the one who always gave a loud woof when they were waiting to be let inside for a visit. I had rescued and fostered enough adult dogs to worry when I suspected they might be slowing down. I also knew Chappy had developed some arthritis, so I explained away his lack of presence, using the cold night air as an excuse.
The next day, my mom arrived with what felt like a 10-pound cake and my dad with an envelope containing keypad codes and instructions “in case” I should need them. I thought back to Demon learning how to bark at the door from an elder; he didn’t shy away from something uncomfortable for him, so I secured the envelope in our safe.
After I finished locking the safe, my dad hugged me. He looked over at 10-year-old son and told me I was doing a good job. We aren’t exactly the most affectionate family, so this display of emotion made my eyes burn as I held back tears.
The following night, Demon arrived on the back deck. Alone. A bubble started to inflate in my gut. A shadow began to cross the yard. At first, I hoped it was Chappy lagging behind, but it was too tall and upright. It was their dad who had come to tearfully explain that Chappy passed away the morning before.
I looked out at our adjoining yards. Suddenly, the acreage felt as if it had doubled in size. There was so much empty space. This is the part of death I feared the most. The hole that’s left behind when someone dies in a place that used to be vibrant and full of life.
The gnawing pain in my gut grew, the familiar dread I’ve felt after every person, and every dog, I’ve ever loved died.
The following morning, the heaviness from the night before made a home in my stomach. I walked the paved path leading to the side door of my work building, my eyes down. Suddenly, two white paws appeared in front of me. A white lab puppy jumped and twirled at my feet.
A loud woof forced my head to spring up. A golden doodle graying around his whiskers let out a warning bark to the puppy. As if to say, hey kid get back here! A few yards away a woman holding the doodle’s leash in one hand, and an empty leash in the other, ran as fast as her brown knee-high boots would take her toward me.
“Oh my god,” I said, dropping my bags on the wet pavement to pat the puppy. He clumsily hopped up with his too-big front paws on my chest. I could feel his downy puppy fur beneath my fingertips. His hot breath warmed my face as he licked at the tears pouring from my eyes.
“Oh no! Oh god, I’m so sorry! Are you afraid of dogs?” The woman asked.
“No! No, not at all,” tripping over my words. I added, “He’s going to be a good boy.”
As I picked up my bags and watched the trio walk away, the older dog standing tall next to the young puppy, I wondered: do people not fear death because they find solace in knowing they’ve passed on everything they know to someone younger (dogs included, of course)? Someone who will carry on their traditions. Whether it’s waiting on the back deck to be let in for a treat, or the family traditions my father sees me carrying on with my son.
“Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs are part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is.” ~ Natalie Babbit, “Tuck Everlasting”
Looking back on the scene from “Tuck Everlasting,” I have a different perspective. There was no choice. Winnie would live forever whether she opted to drink from the magical water granting her eternal life, or chose to face mortality. Pieces of our lives are immortal. Family traditions and wisdom continue to live on through the younger people we’ve mentored, our children, and our grandchildren.
The void will never be filled. No one person could ever take another person’s place. No dog could ever take another dog’s place. Instead, we can teach our younger generation to bring their love, energy, and color to the darkness that was left in the wake of another’s passing.
Because one thing is certain after we die. Life goes on.