This Narrow Valley

April 28, 2010

There’s a home for the elderly that Emilia and Jasper and I pass every day on our walks to and from preschool and junior kindergarten and ballet lessons and karate. Emilia calls the ladies who live there her ladies – “we need to wave to my ladies, Mommy!” -  and she waves and blows kisses to them when we see them sitting in their enclosed verandah, and, when they come out outside for their daily constitutionals, she stops for chats and hugs. They give her extra candy at Halloween. She thinks that they’re awesome. “Just like Grandma, only not so far away and also they give me candy instead of cake.” Which is an important difference, you know.

The other day, after passing her ladies and dispensing the requisite waves and kisses, Emilia asked this: “why are some grandmas in wheelchairs?”

“Because they’re older, sweetie, and their bodies aren’t working so well anymore, and they can’t walk as much as they used to, so they need help. Wheelchairs help them get around.”

“Are they going to die? Because their bodies aren’t working?”

“Not just yet, I don’t think. But yes, when people get much older, they’re closer to dying.”

“And when their bodies aren’t working they’re closer to dying too?”

This is what you get when death is a semi-regular topic in your household. “Yes, sweetie, when their bodies aren’t working.”

“Is Tanner going to die?”

Ah. Ugh.

“Because he’s in a wheelchair, and his body isn’t working. Is he going to die, Mommy?”

It’s moments like these that one wishes, fervently, that a meteor would blast out of the sky or a unicorn would leap out from behind a tree or that a team of nude marathoners would streak by on the street because, seriously, flapping genitals and shooting stars and beasts of myth and legend would be easier to account for than the fact that one’s child’s much-loved cousin is dying.

To say that I chose my words carefully is dramatic understatement. “He is dying, honey. Not right now, though.”


“We don’t know.” I clutched her hand and prayed for unicorns. “We don’t know.”

“Well, when he dies I need him to take a letter to Grandpa. I’ll write one for him, too, but there’s one I need to send to Grandpa and you said that he doesn’t have a mailbox so someone needs to take it to him. Can we phone Tanner and ask him if he’ll do that?”

No unicorns appeared, no meteors blazed through the sky, no nudists ran past us in the street, and when she asked if I was crying, I said no, no, there’s just something in my eye. And then I prayed even harder for unicorns.


I sent a letter with my dad when he died. I wrote a letter to him, and asked the funeral director to lay it upon his body when he was cremated. I said secret things, loving things; I gave thanks; I made promises. And I asked him if he wouldn’t mind delivering another letter, a letter to my Grandma, a letter that I had written many, many years before, when she died, and that I had asked him to give to her, a letter that I found, after he died, in one of his secret boxes of letters, a letter that he had kept alongside his suicide notes, a letter that, I think, reminded him of how powerful love and how powerful life and how powerful death and that kept him from fulfilling the his suicide wishes and that kept him tethered to life, and the joy of life, whenever such joy was faint. I asked the funeral director to place that letter upon his body, too, so that he might deliver it to her, because I knew that he’d always intended to, and that he’d be glad.

And so those letters burned with my father’s body, and that they did provided me – still provides me – with some comfort. And him too, I think. I hope.

So. I understand why Emilia wants to write him a letter. I know why she wants Tanner to deliver it. My heart weeps, knowing this.


We don’t really talk to Tanner about death, or at least, not about the fact that he’s dying. When my father died, we stumbled around the subject, struggling to frame it in the most positive terms – Grandpa had a good life, Grandpa was so loved, Grandpa will always be with us in our hearts – and to balance the sadness with joy – it’s okay to be sad, because we miss him, but we’re sad because we still love him and will always love him and love never dies and that’s good. That’s good! We threw a birthday party – at the lake, on the beach – for him, in lieu of a memorial, so that there could be balloons and cake and candles, so that the kids, and Tanner especially, would experience the occasion as joyous rather sad, a celebration rather than a goodbye. We called it his last birthday, and Emilia and Jasper and Sophie and Tanner loved it, and even though the wheels of Tanner’s chair got stuck in the sand and seagulls stole some of his cake, he declared it a good day. “This was a good day,” he said, and we all agreed. We saved our tears for later.

My mom and discussed at length whether we were wrong to try to contain some of our sadness about Dad’s death in front of Tanner. Wouldn’t we do better, I wondered, to be honest? To let him know that it’s okay to hurt, to be sad about death? So that he knows, when the time comes, that we’ll be hurt and sad for him? My mom disagreed. He knows we’re sad. But he doesn’t need see us in the full bloom of pain.

We still don’t know how to navigate this, this narrow valley between the joy of life and the fear of death, this valley that gets narrower and narrower the further we walk. How do we openly exult in the sunlight without acknowledging the shadows? How do we make plain how precious is each day without acknowledging that we are counting those days? How does one talk about death with a child who is dying? How does one talk about a child dying to the children that love him?

How does one prepare them for the letters?

Emilia cannot make her phone call, of course. We are not making preparations for Tanner’s death, except for all of the ways that we are, all of the ways that we prefer to think of as life, as living, as seizing the days, and so now is not the time. I don’t know that there will be ever be such a time, although perhaps there should be, perhaps there needs to be, and perhaps this angst is just my soul recoiling against what this all means.

I will let her write her letters, and I will save them for her, and when the time is right, maybe – sometime, when we are all holding hands and walking through the narrowing valley – she will ask Tanner to take them and he and she and we will be comforted. Maybe. Maybe.

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    Tatiana April 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I don’t know what to write. I’m sitting here in tears, humbled by your strength and astounded at Emilia’s love. I’m sorry that death is a constant presence in your family’s life.
    .-= Tatiana´s last blog ..The Best Mother’s Day Ever =-.

    Julie @ The Mom Slant April 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    So poignant and sad and beautiful. I wish I could say more, do more.
    .-= Julie @ The Mom Slant´s last blog ..Duck and cover: It’s a Boobquake! =-.

    Roberta April 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I am breathless and tearful. Emilia blows me away every time with her thoughts. She takes after her mother, I think. I know how painful this subject is, but you write it so eloquently, so rawly, so powerfully, so beautifully. There is so much pain, but so much love. I’m crying for both. Be comforted. Thank you.
    .-= Roberta´s last blog ..I’m a hot, neurotic, micromanaging mess =-.

    Shaunadnauseam April 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    A beautiful post… on so many levels. One that I know I will remember when the time comes to explain all of this to my own child… Thankfully –hopefully–, death won’t become a topic of discussion for years to come.


    Mary P (Barnmaven) April 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Your ability to translate the depths of emotion you are feeling just blows me away. And Emilia…what an old soul your little girl is. So wise and loving and sensitive.

    I know it doesn’t make you feel better to know that I’m shedding tears with you and for Tanner and for all of you, but I hope it helps you feel a little less alone.
    .-= Mary P (Barnmaven)´s last blog ..Flashback: The first one =-.

    Catherine April 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    She *is* an old soul. She is so full of grace, it astounds me.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..This Narrow Valley =-.

    Catherine April 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Damn, girl. You always make me cry.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Independence, inter-dependence =-.

    Ida Davidson April 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Children always seem to have such perfect aim for those tender spots that we don’t want to face, and force us to keep them in the light. It hurts so much it takes your breath away.

    Sometimes it has a side benefit of forcing you to deal with things that you haven’t yet… others, not so much.

    .-= Ida Davidson´s last blog ..Planning for the light at the end of the tunnel =-.

    Jennifer April 28, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    So very heart breaking. I don’t really know what the right thing to do is and yet, I kind of think you’re doing it. These things are so hard
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Boobs! =-.

    Hi, I'm Natalie. April 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Oh, wow.
    .-= Hi, I’m Natalie.´s last blog ..Going Back To Work: Panic Attack =-.

    breedemandweep April 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    My God, how beautiful. Thank you. There aren’t words. I’m so sorry. But what grace.

    Catherine April 28, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    xoxoxo to you, lady.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..This Narrow Valley =-.

    bridget April 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    tears. for your honesty-

    kittenpie April 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Talking about death is always hard, of course, since they always seem to seize upon the fact that you and they are going to die one day, but so much harder when there is someone they know who is closing in on it faster than any of the rest of you.

    Because I am me, I would suggest this book for her, a beautiful one about how death is part of the cycle of life, about how all living things die. It’s poetic and lovely, but simple. And for Tanner, you might consider this book, written for children with terminal illness. Again, it is simple and lovely, and helps talk about death with them, giving them the reassurance that there are people who will help them on that journey.

    Catherine April 28, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    I’ve been meaning to e-mail you to see if you had any recommendations for books for Tanner. Thank you so much. SO much. :)
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..This Narrow Valley =-.

    kittenpie April 28, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    I forgot to mention there, but think it’s important in this matter to note that both of these also leave room for faith, but don’t rely on it or direct to it so much as to conflict with most denominations, so they will be compatible with someone like me, without a defined faith, or for someone who is a member of a faith community. I’m not sure if your sister has stayed with the catholic church, for example, but it wouldn’t conflict, which I think is important for such a big topic.
    .-= kittenpie´s last blog ..That’s Better =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 30, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    That’s good to know, actually. My sister is as ambivalent as I am about Catholicism, so it’s important than any book NOT be too rooted in any particular faith. Thank you.

    Angela April 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    God yes, please let there be flapping genitals should this conversation happen for me. I can’t imagine how hard this entire situation, this entire year or so has been for you as a mother, daughter, sister and aunt.

    Took your twitter to heart and made sure my keyboard was far away as I read this. Good thing too.
    .-= Angela´s last blog ..What one month will do =-.

    Candace April 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Beautiful. Sad. Deep. Loving. My wish for you and your family is peace. It’s hard to find it – I still haven’t found it – but I hope it comes to you sooner rather than later.
    .-= Candace´s last blog ..My blog is carbon neutral =-.

    zchamu April 28, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Oh. *tears*.
    .-= zchamu´s last blog ..Just when you think people couldn’t suck more…. =-.

    Karen April 28, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    You have such a way, Catherine. Such a beautiful way about you that helps all of us deal with these difficult, heart-wrenching things. Huge tender hugs – for everything.

    Marla April 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    When my grandfather died, my 4 year old son wrote him a letter which we then burned in the fireplace so that the message could go to great-grandpa in heaven.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    This is a WONDERFUL idea. Thank you.

    liz April 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Sobbing away right here at work. Not ashamed to say it.

    Loralee April 28, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    All of our discussions about grief were after Matthew died because we had no idea it was going to happen.


    When I was pregnant with Aaron (and for a long time after he was born) our boys were SCARED about death and something happening to him…as we all were.

    We talked a lot about it. And that is the best thing you can do…just what you did. What you are doing and what you’ll continue to do.

    It is a horrible walk you’re all walking and I just want to hug you every step of the way.

    .-= Loralee´s last blog ..Swimsuit photos: I want to love my legs but at this point I will settle for not beating them up and getting myself charged with a hate crime. =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    I will take your hugs. All of them. And then ask for more. xoxo

    angelynn April 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    This was so beautiful and so full of warmth and love. Children are wise beyond their years. It must be so difficult to ponder what to share and what not to share at each stage in your journey. The power of a letter, of pouring yourself out on the page is one of the most healing acts. What a wonderful way to remember those we love. I wish you continued strength.
    .-= angelynn´s last blog ..At the club =-.

    Catherine April 28, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I’m still learning to relax and follow my daughter’s wisdom. It’s not easy, but it’s so, so rewarding.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..This Narrow Valley =-.

    Burgh Baby April 28, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Just . . . beautiful.
    .-= Burgh Baby´s last blog ..His Life is Just SO Horrible =-.

    DianaCLT April 28, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Beautiful. And heart-wrenching. And amazing. And powerful.

    You are an awesome mother and aunt, in a horrible predicament. But you are doing and loving and thinking and blogging beautifully.

    My prayers for you and Emilia and Tanner and everyone who loves him.

    Amy April 28, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    You write many beautiful posts. This was simply breathtaking.

    Wishing peace and comfort for you and yours.

    Issa April 28, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Sigh. I guess you let her write them and hold onto it like you said. It must be important to her, or she wouldn’t have said it. You’ve got an amazing girl.

    Hugs Catherine.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..Just letting some of the crazy out =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    She’s IS an amazing girl. She breaks my heart in ways that make me proud.

    Holly {ArtistMotherTeacher} April 28, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I’m reading this at work and that is the only thing that is keeping me from crying.

    Beautiful. Painful. Honest. Magnificent.

    Peggy Brister April 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    I have subscribed to your blog for awhile, but obviously not long enough to know why Tanner is in a wheelchair and why he is dying. And I have to say I am a pretty tough cookie. I read all of Califmom’s blog post about her dying husband and post death blog posts and never even got a lump in my throat, but you just made me bawl. Both my kids saw me and asked me why I was crying. They knew. I had told them, momma is reading blogs be quiet. So they were curious why blogs would make me cry. DD said, “I thought I wanted my own blog but if they make you cry then nevermind” I explained to them I had read about a dying child. I guess when it comes to children I have a harder time being tough. I imagined my own child. I always do. Thanks for sharing something so personal.

    Peggy Brister April 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I will go back in your blog and try to find out about Tanner.
    .-= Peggy Brister´s last blog ..Watch out Twitter bishes!! =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    I included a link in the post, but here’s a recent-ish post that discusses his condition:

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    Peggy Brister April 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Thank you. I went back and read that post and realized I have read that post before. I guess I read way too many blogs in my blog reader to remember everything i read.
    .-= Peggy Brister´s last blog ..Watch out Twitter bishes!! =-.

    Ashley April 28, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    “Is Tanner going to die?”

    I a deep breath and out right said “Oh, God” when I read this line. My heart aches for you, and for innocent Emilia, and of course, for Tanner.

    I have found my self so speechless over Tanner, and death, and children and death, and children who are dying… and Oh God, it hurts my heart.

    My heart is with you, your family, Emilia, Jasper, Tanner…

    And on another note – I have been reading your blog for a while, and one thing that I find so interesting about reading something so unique as your blog, is that I feel as if I have gotten to know you and your family. I laugh with you, cry with you, weep with you.. and ultimatly am here with you.

    mapsgirl April 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    How is it that even tho they are so young they have so much to teach us, to help us through and to help us better understand what surrounds us?

    I have always wondered how I will help my children grieve, but after reading this, I think I’ll follow their lead. Thank you Emilia.
    .-= mapsgirl´s last blog ..happy earth day: being treesponsible =-.

    john cave osborne April 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm



    thank you so much for this gift or articulation you’ve given us. prayers for tanner.
    .-= john cave osborne´s last blog ..Married to Max =-.

    Jack April 28, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Death has been a semi regular topic in my house. When my son was born he had five great grandparents. As of today he is down to one. So he has been exposed several times to the death of relatives, including a few aunts and uncles.

    One of the hardest conversations that I ever had with him was when he asked me not to die. It turned into a blog post and is responsible for teaching me the value of blogging, but I digress.

    I can’t and won’t tell you what to do with your kids, but I can tell you what we did. We purchased a book about life cycles and that was a tremendous help to my kids. It helped them to understand how it all works. Didn’t solve everything, but I think that it eased the sting somewhat.
    .-= Jack´s last blog ..Why Do They Want To Kill Us? =-.

    Janis @ Sneak Peek At Me April 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Beautifully said. So sorry that your children will have to confront such a heavy issue in their young lives.
    .-= Janis @ Sneak Peek At Me´s last blog ..What Happened To Professionalism? =-.

    WeaselMomma April 28, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I have no words of wisdom or comfort. All I can say is that I a sorry that your family is suffering and that this is beautifully written. It touched my heart.
    .-= WeaselMomma´s last blog ..The Internet Has Big Arms. =-.

    Chris | @Wrath66 April 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    An astonishingly moving story eloquently told. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Chris | @Wrath66´s last blog ..Baby Grrl!™ Lab Report – Week 36 =-.

    hello haha narf April 28, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    i love the letter idea. wish i would have known about it four years ago when mom was cremated. perhaps i’ll still write it.

    thank you so very much for this post. it is a powerful peace.

    my prayers are with your family.
    .-= hello haha narf´s last blog ..Happiness =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Marla commented with a wonderful idea below ( – writing letters and sending them by burning them in a fireplace (or campfire or some such). I love this.

    Ginger April 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    That Emilia just breaks my heart. You’ve done it again with that bittersweet thing you do with words that rips my guts out!! My heart aches for Tanner, and for his whole family. I am interested to see what Kittenpie’s books sugggestions are and I think I might want to know that again, as my girl who just turned four talks much the way Emilia does about my aging, failing parents, who will inevitably die, and I may need that book. But for Tanner: I have no guidance on how you walk that path, I only know you will do it with love.
    .-= Ginger´s last blog ..The March of the Babies =-.

    ame i. April 28, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Heartbreaking yet so sweet.
    E’s Ladies remind me of Waving Guy. I’m not sure how old he is, anywhere from 30ish to 40ish is my guess. He lives in an assisted living home at a busy intersection of our town. He wheels himself out everyday, spends hours waving at people as they drive by. You won’t hear more car horn honks anywhere else in town.
    A few Springs ago, several days passed without anyone seeing Waving Guy. So many people called the home asking about him, they finally called the talk radio station to let people know Waving Guy was getting over a bad cold, he would be back soon.
    Not long ago they built a small covered area for him at the Waving Corner. Now we get waves, rain or shine.
    Let’s send a prayer up for all Waving Guys/Ladies, to all of the Tanners. It’s worth a shot.

    Rita April 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Again, I honestly just have never read the words of someone who could more beautifully write about such pain and grief. Your sadness always makes me cry, but then you distract me because you are the most gifted writer I have ever read.

    Just incredibly beautifully sad.
    .-= Rita´s last blog ..Our last night in Paradise =-.

    avasmommy April 28, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    That girl takes my breath away. This post made me cry.

    Am so sorry for all the grief you and your family have to endure. However, it sounds like she’s doing well with it.
    .-= avasmommy´s last blog ..The White Glove Test =-.

    J from Ireland April 28, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Wow this is heart breaking. I’m sorry that you have to deal with the sadness of this and continue to deal with everyday life. My thoughts and prayers go out to you all.

    Amy April 28, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    That you keep writing about this is so powerful. That you navigate it with grace and strength is more powerful still.

    Laura (Nahbee) April 28, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I’m sitting here, both crying for you and your daughter…well, for your whole family, really. But also amazed at the strength and understanding. In the end, perhaps it will be your daughter who leads all of you out of the shadowed places and back to the light when Tanner does die.

    Still, let’s hope it is not for a long time to come.

    pgoodness April 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Sending the letters in the fireplace is a fabulous idea.

    She is so wise beyond her years and this walk that you are walking is so sad but inspiring. You are so open with her and even though you were wishing for unicorns, you handled the entire thing so well. Perhaps YOU should write a book along the way…

    Hugs to you and yours.
    .-= pgoodness´s last blog ..Field trip! =-.

    Jenny, Bloggess April 28, 2010 at 10:06 pm


    I wish I had an answer…

    Kairos April 28, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    These questions are hard, but you handled them with grace.

    We have the Lifetimes book that was suggested earlier and it seems to be useful for our daughter, although we can’t bear to read it to her yet. Preschool does it for us.

    I wish as much peace as possible to you in these hard time.

    Selena April 29, 2010 at 12:17 am

    That left me pretty much breathless. Such eloquent, brave, dark beauty I have found in your words more than once. But your Emilia. What a shining star. As full as the moon is ripe right now, I think it could be her as the unicorn. I cannot imagine the loss of a child near and dear to me, to you and your sister – your family, may love conquer.
    .-= Selena´s last blog ..BSM: Big Strappin’ Man =-.

    MakingTime April 29, 2010 at 2:52 am

    Quite beautiful. I was just wondering the last time you wrote about Tanner whether people are talking to him about death and how in the bejeezus you do that.

    The Grieving Child is a book we found helpful when my father died (my nephew was extremely close to him and has no dad).
    .-= MakingTime´s last blog ..The Pious Mr. Poopypants =-.

    Her Bad Mother April 30, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    It’s one of the more difficult things that we struggle with. And it was uniquely difficult when my dad died.

    Bobbi Janay April 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Wow, how tough to be faced with such questions from the littles. I love the fact that she wants Tanner to deliver her letter. I love that you had your Dad deliver your letter to your Grandma.

    klcrab April 29, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    I think I could almost feel your heart stop through your writing when she asked. Amazing Grace, your lovely child, but what a writer to be able to capture it and share it.
    Peace be with you

    Her Bad Mother April 30, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    It almost did stop. For real. (And writing? Writing saves me. Capturing it helps me look at it and be okay with it. So. Thank you.)

    Deborah May 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Another possible way to send a message is to write a letter and tie it to a helium balloon, which you let go, to carry your message up.

    Her Bad Mother May 1, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    That’s a lovely idea, too.

    When my grandmother died, I had wanted the letter buried with her, but I was afraid to ask. I wished for a long time that it had been buried with her, but when it went with my dad, it was almost better.

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