on mayflies & mortality
We’ve hosted a series of viruses from Eva’s preschool this past month. Somehow not Covid, although I finally got The Call that she’d been exposed and needed to be picked up immediately to quarantine. She had cold symptoms the next day, and I was sure our number was finally up, but daily home tests plus a PCR were all negative. Then I got the cold and confirmed it felt very cold-like, unlike the flu-like illness of the previous week, which knocked us all flat for days (not Covid either, said the home tests).
All these illnesses follow the same pattern: Eva is Patient Zero and communicates her symptoms in her 3-year-old way (e.g, “my mouth hurts”). Then Joe and I get the illness and apprehend its true nature. Then the baby gets it, just in time for Eva to bring home the next one. Seasonal allergies have compounded things. We are all tired and hoping to be less congested soon.
Recently, when the nights were still freezing, there was a mayfly on our windowpane. I didn’t know at first it was a mayfly. My first reaction was, “WTF, mosquitoes already?” Then I looked at it more closely, and the word “mayfly” came to me. I confirmed online that’s what it was and searched if mayflies bite. They do not, in fact, because they do not have mouths. They live for a day (as mayflies; prior to that they spend up to a year as aquatic nymphs) during which they mate and then die.
Maybe this is common knowledge but I didn’t know. It made me think of Virginia Woolf’s “Death of the Moth,” which I often assign when I’m teaching. Of the dying moth, Woolf says:
There was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it.
I wish I’d known what a mayfly was so I could have called Eva over to study a bead of pure life. She’s had a lot of questions about life and death recently. The night before Easter, she asked how eggs grow, which led to an impromptu sex-ed lesson (she said I was “pretty funny”). And I guess death has been all around us with Covid and dog death (RIP Punchy) and the relentless mortality of Disney. She recently confirmed with me that everyone dies, and since then it’s been off to the races. Her questions often cut to the heart of the matter: Where did Punchy go when he died? How do we fight dying?
For questions without answers, I rely as always on books. The closest thing I’ve found to the “Death of the Moth” for little kids is Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird, which was newly illustrated by Christian Robinson in 2016. Death is distilled here in a small bird, which is already dead when the children find it, so their first focus is on the physical. Then the children hold a funeral for the bird: burying and even mourning it for a time. Honestly, Eva finds it a little “boring,” but I guess that’s what I’m going for at this point: to keep our death discussions frank and banal. I recognize what a tremendous privilege it is to have been able to do this so far. I frequently have to reassure her that I won't die until both she and I are very old, and she has not yet questioned how I know this.
My favorite line in The Dead Bird is: “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on its grave.” It’s the “until they forgot” that makes MWB one of the greats.
A related May poem from Phillip Larkin (I’m posting a picture because Substack wants to butcher the spacing):
I loved reading this. The questions about death wax and wane. Just recently, it’s become “here’s what I think happens when we die” and that’s always interesting because it stretches my comfort zone.
Glad you guys have slipped under Covid. Hope that trend continues!
I feel like I’ve been surrounded by death these past few years. Coming and going to work and checking “the list” every morning became routine. Death is most certainly the most reliable, routine, certain thing that happens yet it’s clouded with so much mystery.
Thank you for your beautiful words.
Beautifully expressed, as ever. (And: I love the photo of the poem, but also there's a Poetry block in Substack, which will preserve the formatting of poems! I think it's rather new)