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Rachel Sherman Headshot

On Death And Daughters

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When my new baby, after months of feeding off me from the inside, was born and reached out to me for nourishment in the world outside, I knew I would die. I thought about this as I slept sideways to breastfeed, smelling the smell of my daughter's milk breath, touching her delicate fingers.

When I wasn't feeding her or changing her or trying to sleep, I proposed articles on my death discovery to parenting websites. Now that I was a mother, my days filled with new and hopeful life, death consumed me.

The articles I proposed were not bought. It was hard to couch the feeling in any way but by using the only word that could take me away from my newborn. I could not write about birth without writing about death.

I was relieved when I read Joan Didion's Blue Nights. It was these two quotes, so brave and true, that comforted me:

"When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children," and "Once she was born I was never not afraid."

In the three years since my daughter was born, death creeps up in various places. The place I go back to -- the vision that comes to me first -- is a night when I took two friends in my deer-beaten car after a college party. I was driving, drunk, my headlights following the veins of the old blacktop, my eyes focusing solely on the space in which the light stopped. I steered off the road onto the grassy hill that led down to our dorms. I turned the car around while one of the passengers -- a big guy who would come to my room and philosophize about Kant and Kierkagaard while I sat on my bed nodding -- screamed for me to stop.

My best friend at the time -- a mother now as well, also afraid of dying -- was in the front seat. We were often drunk then, running around on our leafy campus. We went to a small college, and we were both late-bloomers, lost girls, drinking Goldschläger through straws...

The fear that hits me sometimes when I make a certain face that reminds me of my daughter is that when she was born all the things that I had been were added up; someplace inside her is a drunk girl doing wheelies on a tree-pocked, bumpy lawn.

Or perhaps it is that when she was born, I ceased to be that girl who drove there.

Herein lies the crux of death and daughters. Driving on that lawn, I was not even close to being a mother. But driving, I could have killed us both.

That the joy of motherhood is compounded with the thought of death changes life itself. The sickening worry that ate me has now morphed into the shape of a joyful, warm and funny little girl, who doesn't yet understand that old people die, not "dive."

I have created a person who believes that at the end of life, when you are white-haired and tired, you drive with your family down the highway to the beach. Everyone wears bathing suits, and it is sunny, and they wave. The water is warm enough, and calm enough for you to swim, and you take off your hat, and touch a toe in to make sure.

When you are ready, you wave goodbye, your dry arm dry for the very last time. Then you begin your breaststroke, heading out into the infinite line ahead of you, saltwater slowly seeping in your eyes, a sting that quickly fades. You wave once more to the tiny specks back on shore -- those people you made and loved and feared for -- and take one last happy breath, and dive.