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How Death Changed Our Child

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That the flash flood felt, by Toronto standards, Biblical in scale, brought Noah and his ark to mind. I had made it to the airport mere minutes ahead of the news of submerged cars, power outages, and flooded subway stations.

The 4:25pm Tokyo-Toronto plane circled above the angry clouds for an hour, then diverted to Ottawa to refuel. The six-hour wait for the plane's return to Pearson International gave me time to think. Outside the Arrivals zone, sheets of water pummeled waiting taxis and I thought about what Noah had fed his family during the 375 days they were on board the ark.

Fish, of course. And with no refrigeration, mostly raw fish: sushi. I imagined him and his sons out on the deck, bracing themselves against the rocking waves and unrelenting downpour and casting their net into the bottomless ocean.

Nobody in their right mind would have started a fire in an ark made from willow branches and palm leaves. No point burning the house down when you are the only house left floating in the world.

I also thought about the conversation I had had with my daughter's mother three weeks ago, after receiving word that our daughter's sobo (grandmother) had passed away in Japan. Should she take our daughter with her to engage in the potentially traumatic Buddhist rituals around her sobo's cremated body?

We were mindful of the gravity of the experience and knew that it would be a watershed moment in our daughter's life; another rite of passage that would be as defining as when she uttered her first meaningful word, took her first step, and strung together her first coherent question. In the end, we thought she was ready. So did she, our brave eight year-old.

We were all wrong.

Nothing leaves a more lasting and indelible impression than the death of a family member, even as the passage of time attempts to make a smudge of it and memory unabashedly blurs the line between fact and fancy.

Death confuses. Our minds tell us one thing and our bodies another. We know it is a natural phenomenon (older people told us so); yet we feel that it is somehow alien, like the way disease feels alien in our bodies.

In the car on our way back from the airport, our daughter referred to them as "the shivers".

"It feels like something hurting in my feet and then moving up to my head."

According to her mother, this "dis-ease" had been afflicting her since that day she picked up the bones of her somo's cremated body and placed them in a ceremonial vase, a custom for family members of the deceased.

At home that night, we spread out a mattress on the living room floor. She didn't want to sleep alone.

"I can't stop thinking about it."

"About what?"

"About mommy dying."

I offered some meditation advice: lean into the thought, become friends with it, be gentle with yourself.

"Think Monsters Inc. Remember Boo? The monsters weren't scary to her when she wanted to hold them. They were just cuddly things that needed her love."

She clung to her stuffed Hello Kitty doll each time a wave of monsters rose up her body and toward her head.

It didn't help.

I massaged her feet and legs and asked her to describe as specifically as she could just what was bothering her.

"Picking up the bones of somo's nose to put it in the jar. And not wanting mommy to die."

Later that night, with the second storm rattling our windows, the torrent began:
"I want to die before mommy so that I could spend the rest of my life with her. I want to die before mommy because it would hurt too much if she died before me. I love mommy so much, daddy, I love her so much, and I don't want her to die."

The tears were of a new kind, came from a different place. The cries: primal, atavistic. Tears and cries that break the hearts of even the most hardened parents. She was no longer the same child I said goodbye to at the airport three weeks ago.

And this annihilated me.

"Daddy, why do people have to die?"

Clichés issue easily from us when we see another human being suffering. And who wants to utter naked truths at such a time, especially when it is to your own eight-year-old child? The existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy is one thing; a death in the family, another.

Forgetting is long and she will never forgive you for the platitudes, the bullshit. This I knew. And yet I wanted to feed my daughter lies so that she could sleep, feel better when she woke; feed her lies so that I could sleep, feel better when I woke. But it was still afternoon in Japan; sleep would not come easy for her. So we stayed up all night and cut to the chase. I needed to hear that crushing incoherent noise that was at the source of my daughter's pain.

Yes, I wanted to lie to her -- to the one person I loved most in this world. But I could not.

"What if mommy doesn't live a long life. How do you know if she won't die tomorrow?

"I don't, my love. Mommy might die tomorrow. We can't know. But because of you she is trying to be around for a long time, to watch you grow."

"What if we died together? Then we can meet in heaven together at the same time, right?"

"There is no heaven out there, sweetie. What is beautiful and what is horrible is inside all of us."

"But if we can't meet somewhere after we die, what's the point of living? It doesn't make sense."

"You are right. It makes no sense."

"Daddy, I wish people didn't have to die. I wish they could live forever. Don't you?"

"No, I don't. When we know that people die, we appreciate them more. Don't you?"

"No, I think that I would appreciate them more because I see them all the time."

You stop yourself. You don't want to argue with a child's logic of love.

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"I feel it coming again."

"What does it feel like?"

"Like my brain is about to explode. It doesn't stop time. Everybody changes. I wish I had a time machine."

"I understand."

I held her. She held Hello Kitty. All night.

The following morning, when the clouds broke and I thought the sun would never rise, she said:
"Daddy, can we make sushi for mommy when she wakes up?"

I washed and prepared the rice. We emptied the fridge of left-overs: grilled chicken, pork, raw salmon, vegetables. She set out the rolling mats and sheets of nori on our garden table.

And we went to work. Silently, in unison. We piled everything we could onto full and half sheets. We rolled. We cut the rolls. It was messy. Like love. Like life.

And death.

We gave each other high-fives and hugged. It felt different. She leaned into it.

The sky began to darken again, so we moved everything inside. Storm clouds and more shivers. I thought about Noah again, about his family safely ensconced in the ark, and I imagined him whispering to himself as he waved a contemptuous farewell to a world gone corrupt, superfluous: Apre moi, le deluge.

After me, the flood...