Telomeres—they are the fraying shoelaces of life, its slowly sputtering fuse. Located on the tips of our chromosomes, telomeres are little bits of genetic material that play a key role in cell division, allowing new blood, bone, skin and other types of cells to reproduce. Trouble is, every time a cell divides to make more of itself, its telomeres become shorter. Once they become too short, that cell begins to fail. The telomeres’ gradual unravelling may explain why we age, become sick and die.
That’s what was going through my head in the airport on the way back from the funeral, when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter asked why Uncle Nico was “in the box.” Because he died, I said. Why? she asked. Because he was old and his heart got sick, I answered. Sickness is something my daughter understands, but she associates it mainly with vomiting since that’s what usually happens when she gets the stomach bug that sweeps through the school system with every change of season. So she ran over to the little boy she had befriended in the lounge and loudly informed him that, “Uncle Nico died coz he was puking and that’s why he’s in the box.”The next thing she wanted to know, though, was when Uncle Nico would be getting out of the box. Ah, I said, he won’t be getting out of the box. Why? she asked. Because he died, I said. But where did he go? she asked. I didn’t have an answer to that, and I didn’t want to invoke a religious explanation. It’s odd the fictions I’m willing to perpetuate. I have no problem pretending to my children that Santa Claus exists, but somehow at that moment I couldn’t get the words ‘He’s in heaven’ across my lips. I’m happy for my kids to believe in Father Christmas but don’t want them thinking there is another father whom they’ll meet in the afterlife. Finally, I came up with an analogy that worked. The box is like an airplane, I said. When you die, you get in the box and it takes you on a trip. No one knows where you go, and you never come back. That seemed to satisfy her, or maybe she just got bored, because she suddenly ran off to play with her friend.
Francis Bacon was a poignant observer of the parent-child relationship:
Children sweeten labours; but they make misfortunes more bitter.
There is definitely nothing sweeter than seeing my daughter’s face as she rushes into my arms when I come home from work; when I used to come home from work, that is. That always made the day’s travails more than worth it. But there’s also nothing more bitter than the thought of her suffering because of something I did or something that happened to me. The biggest fear I have about joblessness is utterly, frighteningly primal: How will I provide for my kids? Waiting for the plane, I watched my daughter racing around the lounge, knowing that our telomeres were flaking away like the ash at the end of a cigarette. What better, more bittersweet thing can I do than bask in that faint but wonderful glow?