Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Well, there’s death

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Rowan had his Paw Patrol headphones on and was keyed into the action. The Paw Patrol pups were lined up, ready for a ruff ruff rescue, and he had sunk down deep in between Bob and me in his hospital chair. He couldn't hear a thing. He was done; he'd played his part—laid his body down, holding still as they prodded and observed him. He'd smiled at the tickle of jelly across his chest and answered the cardiologist's questions. Now, he settled into his chair and gripped the phone down by his knees, making sure we could see too.

Photo by Kate Ristau

Photo by Kate Ristau

The last few months had been strange and cautious and wonderful. With Rowan's heart surgery hanging over our heads, we hadn't done any of the things we'd needed to do, and focused only on the things we'd wanted to do: sleeping in late and wearing pajamas all day, going out for pancakes—dripping cream and strawberries—on a Wednesday morning, and riding the carousel. We'd snuggled, kissed, and held each other. Wrapped up in our sweaters, we'd laid on the lawn and watched bugs crawl through the grass and mud.

Now, we were sitting in the cardiologist's office for the appointment to schedule his surgery. We were making plans to close the hole in his heart. Already, one side of his heart was swelling, enlarging inside his tiny chest. When I laid my head against his skin, I could feel the pounding, skipping murmur of his heart.

As Paw Patrol rolled through his ears, we were talking about what Rowan didn't yet know—how there would be no biking, no baseball, and no more skateboarding. The surgery would bring IVs, bandages, and hospital gowns instead.

The cardiologist's voice, clear and kind, wrapped around us, gentle, but straightforward. She turned to the computer to type in one final comment. "What kind of questions do you have?"

"The surgery," Bob said, scratching his neck slowly. "What can we expect? For side effects? We've read about it, but what could happen?"

She wheeled away from the computer, settled her feet against the tiles. Sensible shoes, made for walking the hospital floors. We leaned in as Rowan leaned back, unaware of the weight of the words in front of him.

"Well," she said, "there's death."

There it was. The thing we had thought about, but never said out loud. The thing nobody ever wants to say out loud—not about someone they love, not about a child. Not about their son.

Death.

I thought I was ready for that moment, but I wasn't.

You see, I'm a folklorist. I've studied stories, followed narratives, considered how we celebrate life and death. I've sat in online funeral chapels, held hands at visitations, and examined the role of memorialization in the grieving process. I'd talked about death, written about death, experienced death; I should have been able to anticipate the concept, at least, but I wasn't.

Looking back, how could I have been ready?

My heart dropped out and my brain cleared away. Empty. No thoughts. Nothing. Just those three words: well, there's death.

The night before we had told Rowan a story. Our dog Winslow had taken a trip to the moon—shot into the sky on Taco Steve's spaceship. They landed on the moon, where they ran into Quarterance. Quarterance is a classic character—he's been around since the stories began. He's the littlest of the Little Guys. His sword is a toothpick; his shield a quarter. He wears a thimble for a helmet. He is strong and very brave—a trumpet calls at his every entrance. Buh-buh-buh buh! The sound fills Winslow with happiness as he finds Quarterance on the other side of the moon. They jump into a crater made of cheese. They climb giant mountains. They redesign Winslow's spacesuit. They meet the man on the moon and after a long day of exploring the other side, they eat strawberry pie.

I want to tell you that this story meant something to me in that moment—that it lifted me up and pulled me in, giving me a deeper understanding of who we are and what we mean to each other. But that would be a lie. It didn't. The story wasn't there. It was just those three words, clear and aching, played over and over again in my mind.

Well, there's death.

The storyteller in me wants to save you from that moment. As you finish these words, the storyteller wants you to feel okay—to know that we worked our way out. She wants to tell you that we fought it through and found the light and found each other and holding hands, we weaved a strawberry pie kind of story.

But that wouldn't be true.

In that moment, the story didn't matter. We sat in that hospital room, Bob's hand over the back of the chair, grazing my shoulder, Rowan's breath hard against his chest, sniffing, laughing in his own little Paw Patrol world as the cardiologist quietly said words like recovery, infection, and heart block. She said words like pacemaker, incision, and pain. But the only words I heard: well, there's death.

Gone. Disappeared. Passed away. At peace. At rest. Gone to a better place. Lost. Departed. Beyond.

Where would we be, if he wasn't sitting between us?

There's a reason we don't talk directly about death. There's a reason we codify our rituals and create a language of loss: Because when we stand in the face of it, nothing else matters. There are no words, no stories, no strawberry pie. Only death, standing alone. The gaping maw, the end.

The end.

And as much as stories matter to me—they breathe life and love and understanding into our lives—sometimes stories aren't what we need. Death is where one story ends. And we can't imagine a new beginning without the crazy little person who can't stand still—who fills up so much of our world with his swinging legs and gentle heart.

So we don't go down that road. We don't think those words. We don't talk about death—and the end of the story—we don't think past the moment we are in.

We stay here. In this moment, on these chairs. Where I am his mom, and Bob is his dad, and the only thing that matters is this moment we have together, stripped of thoughts, all those words melted down. His hand grazing my shoulder, my own slipping down to rest on Rowan's leg. A snicker, a cartoon flash, a smile.


Kate Ristau is the author of the middle grade series, Clockbreakers, and the young adult series, Shadow Girl. In her ideal world, magic and myth combine to create memorable stories with unforgettable characters. Until she finds that world, she’ll live in Oregon with her husband, her son, and her dog.


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Sending so much love to you and your family, Kate. Thank you for writing this.
It's true. Nothing will prepare you for death, not even near death. Near death just makes you believe the stories of invincibility, heroes overcoming all just a little bit more. But if death comes, you will find the need for different stories, ones people don't want to hear, ones the storyteller wants to save people from, but ones you need to tell again and again and again. May Rowan's story be long and perhaps interesting but not too dramatic.
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