If I Die Before You Wake
A Grandfather’s Benediction
Illustration Credit: Ancient Wisdom by Casey Roberts
At nine, curled up under a Roy Rogers blanket, the cold breath of death blew across my dark dormered bedroom. I shivered and instantly knew this one simple truth: no matter what I would do, no matter whom I would please, no matter how good I could be, I was doomed to die. That knowledge not only made my lower lip tremble in fear but raised chronic decades-long goosebumps on my arms.
That night my father sat on my bed and smiled and said that I wouldn’t die for a long, long, long time. A hundred years, he said. And when that didn’t produce the relief he intended, he told me that I wouldn’t die at all—ever.
Even at nine, I knew that wasn’t the truth. I knew I was going to die. Sooner or later. So I wasn’t comforted. More troubling, I knew that my parents would not always tell me the truth. They would just try to make things all better. Even things that could never be all better.
Even so, I was comforted.
Fast forward through adolescence, college, marriage, and kids … to a harder than soft landing in the reflective present, which includes a small tribe of 16 grandchildren who call me Chief. Now 68, with practically all illusions left behind at one unsanctified cathedral or another, I feel deeply that cold wind breathing down the back of my neck.
Such is life.
Looking back on the dark nights and light years that followed that evening when I was nine, I can see how I did the same thing my father did—offering “innocent” affirmations intended to protect my tender-hearted children from the harsh truths about life on this cold planet. Seven times over I repeated the one that begins with “You can be anything you want to be,” as well as the one that ends with “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Not “… and then they died.” Mea culpa.
That said, I’m not donning a hair shirt over my repeated failures to speak truth to my children. In recent years, as I’ve watched my children tell similar lies to their children, I’ve come to understand that it is the parents’ job to encourage their children, no matter the realities, with the hope that they might grow up to be confident and fearless adults.
The elders of the tribe, though, are beholden to a different call. And with the horizon growing closer every day, I am more interested in the sanctity of my grandchildren’s souls than in the soothing of their fears. I am moved to tell them the truth. Truth that is audacious, stunning, revelatory—even frightening. Truth that might actually set them free from fear.
So I awaken these days and come to the keyboard with the singular intention to write stories that will someday be read by my grandchildren (and others) with some confidence that, even if I might surprise or shock or appall, I will not lie.
And if I die before they “wake”—and, frankly, I don’t think anyone truly awakens before the age of 20—here is my one truth that begins it all:
Although some of us may be lucky enough to be healthy and safe and cherished and loved by family and friends, in the universe outside our homes, beyond our tribes, across tree lines and down subway lines, no one is beloved enough to escape the fate of being human. No one is special. Each of us is, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “… whirled by the cold wind / That blows before and after time.”
That, I believe, is the core truth.
But there is some solace in that cold wind: once we accept that singularly fearful lonely truth, we can finally give up trying to control the universe and learn humility in our bones, forgiveness in our bellies, kindness in our hearts, love in our souls.