“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote, “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Half a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat differently in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”
Yet mortality continues to petrify us — our own, and perhaps even more so that of our loved ones. And if the adult consciousness is so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as a necessary and inevitable part of life, how is the child consciousness to settle into comprehension and comfort?
Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.
Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. (I’m reminded of Maria Kalman’s unforgettable words: “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”)
This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.
Inside, he sits down at the kitchen table, where only the youngest of the kids, little Leah, dares look straight at him.
What makes the book particularly touching, thanks to Pardi’s immensely expressive illustration, is just how crestfallen — broken, even — Death himself looks the entire time he is executing his mission, choked up with some indiscernible fusion of resignation and recompense.
In the quiet, the children could hear their grandmother upstairs, breathing with the same raspy breaths as the figure at the table. They knew Death had come for her and that time was short.
To stall the inevitable, the children devise a plan — believing that Death only works at night, they decide to keep refilling his coffee cup until dawn comes, at which point he would have to leave without their grandmother. Here, too, one is struck by the ordinariness of Death, for what can be more ordinary — and life-loving, even — than to enjoy a cup of coffee at the kitchen table?
But Death eventually curls his bony hand over the cup to signal that the time has come. Leah reaches her own tiny hand, taking his in hers, and beseeches him not to take their darling grandmother. Why, she insists, does grandma have to die?
Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.
Death is once more overcome with kindness and compassion for the children, so he decides to answer Leah’s question with a story, hoping it would help them understand why dying is natural and necessary.
He tells them of two brothers named Sorrow and Grief, who lived in a somber valley and went about their days “slowly and heavily” because they never looked up, because “they never saw through the shadows on the tops of the hills.”
Beyond those shadows, Death tells the kids, lived two sisters, Joy and Delight.
They were bright and sunny and their days were full of happiness. The only shadow was their sense that something was missing. They didn’t know what, but they felt they couldn’t fully enjoy their happiness.
As Death is telling the story, little Leah nods her head, for she can tell what is to come — the two boys meet the two girls and they fall in love, two perfectly balanced couples: Sorrow and Joy, Grief and Delight.
Death tells the kids:
It is the same with life and death… What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?
Something difficult and beautiful has sunk in.
When death finally gets up from the table to head upstairs, the youngest boy is moved to stop him — but his older brother puts a rueful hand on his shoulder and gently discourages him.
Moments later, the children heard the upstairs window open. Then, in a voice somewhere between a cry and a whisper, Death said, “Fly, Soul. Fly, fly away.”
They hurry upstairs, where their grandmother has died — a moment of great sadness, enveloped in warm peacefulness.
The curtains were blowing in the gentle morning breeze. Looking at the children, Death said quietly, “Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”
Then he was gone.
Ever after, whenever the children opened a window, they would think of their grandmother. And when the breeze caressed their faces, they could feel her touch.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break comes from the courageous Enchanted Lion, who have brought to life such daring and deeply nuanced picture-books as The Tiger Who Would Be King, Little Boy Brown, The Lion and the Bird, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.
Complement this particular masterpiece with Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, which explores what we stand to lose when we deny difficult emotions like grief, and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, a beautiful meditation on loss, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake. For a grownup counterpart in the same spirit, see Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. For an Eastern perspective, see how a Zen master explained death and the life-force to a child.
In 1984, astronomer Jill Tarter founded SETI — an institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That year, Carl Sagan — a major supporter of the SETI project — began writing his novel Contact, which was published in 1985 and adapted into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster twelve years later. In the most beautiful scene in the movie, Foster’s character, inspired by Dr. Tarter, peers out her spaceship window as she approaches an extraordinary alien world and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”
Several months before the launch of SETI, it was indeed one of humanity’s greatest poets — Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — who addressed the abiding allure of extraterrestrial life by way of its mirror image: the possibility that we might be alone in the universe, what it reveals about our most elemental fears, and how it can ennoble the human spirit.
In a beautiful 1983 piece titled Cosmic Solitude later included in her Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (public library) — a collection of short sketches, reflections, and “loose associations” inspired by books Szymborska was reading at the time — she writes:
Life is picky and demands a mixture of highly specific conditions; we’ve found their fulfillment on our planet and nowhere else so far. Which doesn’t mean that among all the billions and billions of stars there’s no chance of a similar combination.
With her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry wit, Szymborska offers an uncommon take on the implications:
I admit that I find the question of life beyond Earth quite interesting, but still I’d prefer not to have it settled too quickly and definitively. For example, I’m cheered, not disappointed, by the virtually certain fact that there is no life on any other planet in our solar system. I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth. Furthermore I’m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs. Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddis flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal. At the turn of the century, fashion called for rotating tables at which you could summon up the spirit of Copernicus to tell you who’d stolen your garnet ring or the spirit of three-year-old Sabina, who’d authoritatively predict when and where to expect the next European war. It was taken for granted that every spirit must know everything and be good at everything.
Jodie Foster in Contact, 1997. (Photograph courtesy of MoMA)
Setting aside the satire of the supernatural, Szymborska turns to the deeper concern undergirding our longing for celestial companions — our terror of solitude, extended from its acute manifestation in the human realm into our cosmic environment. In a passage all the more poignant today, as we stand perched on the precipice of her “imaginable future,” she writes:
[But] the belief in UFOs has its serious side: fear in the face of cosmic solitude. I don’t mean to make light of this, I’ll just try to ask a few questions. Would this solitude really be so awful? So unbearable? … Would we really be driven to darkest despair by the news that life doesn’t exist beyond Earth? Oh, I know, I know, no scientist will make such an announcement either today or tomorrow, since we have no data at this point and no way of obtaining data in the imaginable future. But let’s stop and think about such a revelation. Would that really be the worst of all possible news? Perhaps just the opposite — it would sober us, brace us, teach us mutual respect, point us toward a slightly more human way of life? Perhaps we wouldn’t talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos? Maybe a single, other life would finally gain the value it deserves, the value of a phenomenon, a revelation, a specimen unique to the entire universe? Every stage manager knows that the tiny figure of an actor against the backdrop of dark curtains on a vast and empty stage becomes monumental in every word and gesture… And after all, would the solitude we fear so much really be so solitary? Along with all the other people, plants, and animals?
Complement this particular portion of Szymborska’s wholly wonderful Nonrequired Reading with Edward Abbey’s love letter to solitude and psychoanalyst Adam Philips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for a full life, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”