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A Boy and His Mother

The boy looked up at his mother, “What is death?”

The mother reached for his hand and gently held it, “It is something that we will all have to do one day.”

“I get to do it too?” asked the boy.

“You will,” said his mother.

They walked through the woods and came upon a tree that had fallen. Bright, white mushrooms had started to develop in long rows on the side of the tree, looking up towards the sun. 

“So, death is something we will all have to do, including me, but what does it mean to die?” The boy looked up at his mother with curious blue eyes. 

“Lets sit,” said the boy’s mother. They both sat side by side on the fallen tree, in a space that the mushrooms did not grow. “This tree has fallen. It no longer stands and sways in the wind, rocking with the other trees. It no longer provides shade for walkers and it no longer sheds its leaves in the fall. One day, many years from now, the tree will decay and become part of the soil again. It will no longer be here for anyone to sit on and look up at the surrounding trees and enjoy them. It will no longer be a place where people can sit and think about their own life.”

“That makes me sad,” said the boy. “I wish the tree would never have fallen.”

“Yes, I understand your sadness,” said the boy’s mother. “However, think about the life the tree had before it fell. It must have been a glorious one. This is a Northern Red Oak tree that we now sit on. Every fall, its leaves turn a wonderful red color and it brightens up the world, bringing so much joy. People come from all around to see it change into one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”

The boy stood and turned to place his hands on the tree’s bark and touched it gently, “But, it will never do that again, and that makes me sad. It has lost its color, its life,” said the boy looking down at the fallen tree, caressing the bark.

The boy’s mother gave this some thought before responding, “I want you to close your eyes for a moment.” The boy did as he was asked. “Now, breathe in deeply through your nose.” The boy took a fast, hard breath. “Not like that,” said his mother, “Breathe very slowly through your nose and then release it even slower.” The boy took a long, slow breath, his belly rising and then falling. “And, what did you smell?” 

“I smelled…the earth…I smelled life…and maybe squirrels,” said the boy. 

“I am not sure what a squirrel smells like, but earth and life definitely,” said the boy’s mother. “Many people walk through their time here on earth forgetting that life is all around them. It is here with us, close, and we are all connected because we all lay our feet and bodies on the earth’s soil. Eventually, our bodies will be under the soil.”

“Is father a part of the earth now?” asked the boy.

“Yes, he was much like this tree,” said Mother, “He was once full of color and life, and held many stories, but he too has fallen and has been gone long enough that his body is now a part of the soil.”

“But…” The boy paused and looked bewildered. 

“Yes, my dear, when you are ready, ask your question.”

“Father’s body was turned to ash and you said you spread it across a lovely field, in a stream, and in the hole in a tree where the woodpeckers drilled their beaks.”

“Yes, that is all true,” said the boy’s mother. “I did that as I held you in my arms.” 

“So, how is his body a part of the soil? He had no body if he was ash.”

“Oh my son, my beautiful boy,” The boy’s mother placed her arm around her son and pulled him closer to her and continued, “Even though he was turned to ash does not take away the fact that it was his body. He once walked this earth. He loved us. He smiled at the sun and stood in the field and waded in the stream. He watched the woodpecker make his hole. It is his body that occupies those spaces now.” The boy's mother reached down and ran her fingers through the boy’s blond, wavy hair. 

“Mother, will you also die one day?” The boy held his mother’s hand as they began to walk the path that guided them through the woods. 

“I will,” she answered and then she paused, “Look back at the tree that we just sat on to talk and rest our bodies.” The boy looked at the tree as if he were looking for something in particular. He looked back at his mother with a curious frown, “The tree still served a purpose.” 

The boy smiled and agreed with a gentle nod and then they began to walk again.

“What will I do when you die?” The boy stopped and looked up at her with tears filling his eyes.

“You will live,” said the boy’s mother. 

“But I will be sad,” said the boy. “I am not sure I can handle you dying. Maybe I should die before you.” 

The boy’s mother took both of her hands and placed them on each side of his face and then she knelt down to look him directly in the eye. “My heart would break into a million pieces, my son, if you were to die before me. I know you never want me to die, but if a parent, a mother, outlives their child, it is a great suffering. The worst kind of suffering. Would you want that for me?”

The boy hugged his mother hard and said, “I would never want you to suffer.” 

“Then please never say that you want to die before me.” The boy’s mother held him tight and a slow tear fell to the boy’s shirt sleeve. “There are many parents that do not get to see their children grow older. My heart breaks for them. However…” the boy’s mother paused for a moment, “There is something else you must know.”

The boy asked, “It seems important, can we lean against this tree?” The boy raced to the trunk of a giant oak and placed the right side of his body against it, including his face. His mother walked to the other side of the tree and placed her body against it as well. 

“You cannot avoid suffering,” The boy’s mother said into the bark of the tree. “You will have many moments of sadness throughout your life, but that does not mean that life is not full of joy and happiness.” 

“Like when I see you looking at a picture of Father and you are crying? That is when I see you sad. Is that suffering?”

“It is a kind of suffering,” said the boy’s mother. 

“And then, when you look at me and hug and kiss me, and you get a big smile across your face, I bring you joy?” 

The mother reached around the tree and placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder, “You are my joy.” She held him close for a moment, the tree tops were touching as they swayed in the wind, sometimes clapping their upper branches together. “Son, what I want you to always remember is that when I see you each morning as you awake, or when you come home from school and walk through the door, that brings me joy. When you run up to me and hug me, that brings me happiness.” 

The boy smiled and then his curiosity returned, “Why do you still cry for Father? He has been gone for so long,” asked the boy.

“That is called grieving.” 

They began to walk the trail, the boy looking at his mother’s legs and trying to match her stride. “Grieving means crying and being sad?”

“It means many things, but mostly grieving means that you loved someone deeply.”

“So, one day, I will grieve for you?” The boy held his mother’s hand. 

“Yes, you will grieve for me and you will remember our walks in the woods and all of the books that we have read together. You will remember the favorite meal that I always make you on Sunday’s, chicken and dumplings.”

“Those are my favorite,” said the boy. “I love the smell of the dumplings as they cook in butter.”

“Yes, and when you grieve, you will remember that smell and think of me, just like when you sit on a fallen tree and smell the earth, you will think of me,” said the boy’s mother. “My hope is that I will get to be an old woman and you will get to be an older man, even with a little gray in your hair, and your memories of me will go well beyond this time right now.”

“But, I love this time, the time right now, when we are walking in the woods, on this path, holding hands.” 

“Yes, my darling,” the boy’s mother grasped his hand slightly tighter in hers, “You must always stay that way.”

“What way?”

“Enjoying the moment,” said the boy’s mother. 

“Like now?” The boy’s mother nodded at him. “Mother, what do you want for me?”

The boy’s mother spoke without hesitation, “I want to see you grow into a man. I want to see you fall in love and have extraordinary experiences. I want you to find something that you are passionate about and not let anything stop you from going after it. I want you to remember, always remember, how much you are loved.”

“That’s all?” 

“That is enough.”

They walked further down the path to the sound of the spring wind churning the tree branches above. The wind was still cool, a reminder of the winter that they just emerged from, but with the slight touches of warmth, a hope for the summer to come.

“Mother,” the boy stopped and looked up at her. She did not say anything but her gentle eyes welcomed his question. “You have still not told me what it means to die.”

“No, honey, we have been talking about what it means to live.”

“Can I ask you something else?” The boy leaned into his mother.

“Of course, son,” and before she paused for his question she added, “You will always, for the rest of your life, be able to talk with me.”

“Can you still have a relationship with someone after they die?” The boy looked down at their feet as he now kept in stride with his mother and smiled.

The boy’s mother stopped and looked down at the boy. He stood straight, looking at her, his cheeks were light pink from the walk and cool wind. She knelt down and hugged the boy, “My insightful, sensitive, intelligent son. Yes, of course the answer is, yes! I will always be your mother, long after I pass, and you will always be my son. We will always have a relationship for an eternity.”

“What does eternity mean?” asked the boy.

“Forever and to the stars,” said the boy’s mother. 

They came out of the path and paused before walking through the field where the boy’s father’s ashes were spread eight years earlier. The sun was beginning to set and the few clouds that were in the sky had turned a brilliant red and orange. It was like a painting.

“I don’t think I will be scared of death,” said the boy. 

“It is not necessary to be scared of something that you cannot control,” said the boy’s mother. 

Years later, the boy had become a man. The sides of his hair had turned slightly gray, along with the thin beard that he now carried on his face. There were lines on the sides of his eyes. Lines that his mother always told him were from living a happy life, one where he smiled a lot. He walked the path just as he once did when he walked with his mother, and the fallen Red Oak tree that they once sat on together was still there, the white mushrooms lined the trunk. The path was covered in fall leaves, red, orange, and yellow, and the cool wind filtered straight at him as he walked. By his side, was his wife, someone who he had spent the last thirty years of his life with. They took many adventures together, traveling the world, and during that time choosing professions that helped others. The man had read great books, and as he promised his mother, he wrote novels as well. In his backpack he carried his mother’s ashes. He found the hole that the woodpecker had continued to expand, and placed some of her ashes in there. He and his wife then walked out of the woods and to the field and let some more of his mother’s remains go, and then finally to the stream where he let her ashes fly in the air as he threw them with tears in his eyes. 

“Go fly, dear mother, you are now a bird. Go fly and be free of all worry and pain,” the boy threw her ashes so that they danced with the wind. 

The man knelt down next to the stream. The water trickled slowly as his reflection stared back at him. In a moment in time, he saw the boy that he once was looking into the stream with his mother’s face next to his. Her warmth was there as a different, older reflection, stared back at him, causing him to pause and say softly, “Mother, all that you once wanted for me came true.” He said this as his wife’s hand caressed the back of his hair and her reflection smiled at him from the waters edge.

The man stood and rolled up his pant legs and slowly walked into the stream. He remembered what his mother always called him, “My wild boy.” As he thought of this and the many aches his body now held, being soothed by the cold water, he dove under and swam downstream several yards. When he emerged he sobbed, blending his tears with the stream, and looked up to the sky above.

“Mother, I know what it means to grieve. You were right, it means that I loved you.” The man wiped his tears and then stood, looking in his wife’s eyes. “I have been lucky to be loved so much in my life.” 

The end!

Or is it the beginning?

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