A name spoken is a life renewed.
By Kara Daddario Bown
I brought a new life into the world this year and it has me thinking a lot about death. Specifically, my own impending and undefined end. When you leave the hospital with a new baby, parents who have gone before often trot out the cliché “they don’t send you home with a manual.” I would argue there are plenty of parenting manuals, judging by the baby book category on Amazon. The topics vary: some address baby hygiene and common colds; others advise on how to make your own organic baby food; and a great many might be classified as “how to not land your kid in therapy for the next 30 years.” I can save everyone some money and time by distilling this latter category of omnivorous parenting advice into a Michael Pollan-esque mantra: Play. Not with digital things. Mostly outside. In my search for parenting wisdom, however, I have yet to find the book that explains what to do when you are a parent who had cancer in your early 30s, your child is the miracle you were hoping for, and you fear a recurrence, or worse, leaving her behind.
Perhaps death permeates my thoughts since I gave birth during a global pandemic. The ticker displaying coronavirus victims rises each day on CNN, heightening my awareness of mortality. When the daily COVID death count became predictable, the universe sent me an unforeseen signal about the fleeting nature of life. Unexpectedly, my best friend’s father died of a heart attack after spending a Sunday morning with his grandsons. His daughters wrote in his eulogy that they grieve for the time their children will not have with him. A succinct thought, which crystallizes my worst fear: being unknown to my child.
While my impermanence has recently left me feeling upended, I find some solace in my experiences with loss. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs had their names carved deeply into the stone of memorial temples, so whenever their name was read or spoken, their life was renewed. I think spoken memories have a similar reviving quality. My grandfathers died before I was born, yet if we were to meet on the other side, I would know them. Their pictures rested on an upright mahogany piano in my parents’ den in the home where I was raised. From the piano bench, I memorized the faces of deceased loved ones more lastingly than the notes of Für Elise. My parents acted as seanchaí, sharing an oral history of my grandparents: staccato stories that punctuated my childhood. My mom spoke of her father’s green thumb and of the roses he patiently cultivated outside of their home in the city. If I listen closely, I can hear the Irish music he played on the weekends while he drank a cup of tea. I see the two papers he read during breakfast every morning neatly stacked next to him, because “it is our duty to be well informed.” I know where he came from, in Roscommon, Ireland. I know where he is buried, in Philadelphia. I often smile at a story my mom told me, about how my grandfather would appear outside her school on rainy days, standing near the entrance with galoshes in his hand to walk her home. The loving tenderness of his gesture overshadows her youthful embarrassment.
Memories can also spur action, providing a blueprint for how to live. My dad’s father died suddenly before my dad turned 12. It was a loss from which he never recovered and one that profoundly affected his life. My dad lived in the present, always listening more intently than I could ever appreciate. He never conceded to the purchase of a burial plot, even after he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. This wasn’t unbridled optimism but a choice to be fully alive in a moment. He shared with two daughters the pastimes of his father. We learned to tie fishing knots and unhook sea bass from tangled lines. We walked in the sorghum fields of central Pennsylvania, flushing pheasant. He cooked dinner each night, sometimes poring over family recipes, sometimes inventing something new. We learned what it meant to invite people to a table: to listen, to gather, to welcome.
I decorate a mantle in my home with pictures—my husband’s family on a boat; my husband and me standing in a stalagmite cave in Mexico; me with my parents on the day of my college graduation. Everyone is still living, except for my dad. My daughter studies his picture, encased in a red frame. He is wearing a blue-and-red-striped tie. It’s the one he wore to my poetry readings at Kelly Writers House and, on that graduation day, when he was proudly standing on Sansom Street. As she looks at the picture, I whisper memories into her ear. I tell her about the time he tried to perfect a crème brûlée recipe for three years, using my sister and me as eager taste testers. I let her know that when she is older, I will teach her how to sail like my dad taught me, so she can identify the names of the lines, the tiller, the centerboard. When we walk on windy days, I peer into the stroller and repeat his mantra when the conditions are right for sailing: “It’s a good day to be on the water.” I don’t know when or how I will explain the illnesses that have torn through her lineage like wildfire, creating both destruction and regrowth.
My daughter sits upright in her bouncing chair in the kitchen and watches me cook. I let her smell a carrot, an onion, a pickle, though she cannot eat them yet. She laughs hardest at the pickle. I hold her tenderly while I sing her Irish lullabies at night. I read Where the Wild Things Are to her, though she may not understand the words. We look at flowers outside of our home and I identify the ivory crepe myrtles, the periwinkle hydrangeas, and the red shrub roses. I share these things with her, so she knows where she comes from, so she knows who I am. I share with her the gifts of my parents, and their parents, and generations who came before them. I don’t know the hour when I will be called home, which perpetuates a lingering fear that it will always be too early. My antidote is to remain steadfast, present, cultivating memories my daughter can carry with her. I do this so one day she will speak my name and tell my stories, as if reading from hieroglyphics imprinted on her heart.
Kara Daddario Bown C’08 is a freelance writer who lives outside of Philadelphia.