Learning about Death


Fatherhood and Parenting
Author Martin Wolterding

For about 5 years I was a member of Ankali, Blue Mountains, a group which provided emotional support to HIV+ people or their families. Since I also was an at-home dad, taking care of my son David, he usually went with me when I visited my Ankali friend Tony. Tony first met David when he was one year old. For the two years that they knew each other Tony and David developed a deep friendship, a source of great fun for David and profound joy for Tony.

Over the last three months of 1994, Tony sickened and finally died of AIDS. Towards the end, during our visits to the hospital, David watched his friend slowly change from a warm, personable, friend to a comatose, skeletal, shadow. We saw Tony for the last time, three days before he died. I took David to the funeral but, despite my explanations, I’m unsure whether he understood what was going on.

On several occasions over the subsequent 6 months, David brought up the issue of mortality. At first he asked about Tony, his sickness, his death and where he is now. Later he asked whether his mother and I were going to die as well. Then, one bright afternoon, he asked me whether he himself would ever die. As I strove to answer with gentle sincerely, these key existential questions, I become detached, watching and monitoring myself from a slight distance. Intuitively I understood that these conversations, the essence of parenthood, are by implication a test. That reacting honestly and openly to these questions is among the handful of crucial moments of my life. Looking into my son’s beautiful face, his eyes beginning to swim with tears, I knew that such moments are what being a dad is all about.

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