I have a lot of catching up to do (it has been a summer!), but in the meantime, there’s this.
Last year my neighbor, mother to a then 4-year-old boy commented about how suddenly he was very interested in death, dying, mortality in general. I couldn’t imagine (nor did I want to imagine) my then-2-year-old Elijah Bean thinking about those things, despite knowing that it was normal and developmentally approriate. But sure enough right after his 4th birthday, while on Harvey’s morning walk, Elijah started drawing from the recesses of his brain and asked about two friend’s pets who died last year. You could see the gears working as his gaze wandered over to Harvey.
“I don’t want Harvey to die.” I told him that I didn’t want Harvey to die either, but that hopefully it wouldn’t happen for a long, long time. I held my breath, hoping the conversation would stall there for at least another few years. A little later now inside, he looked up at me suddenly.
“Are YOU going to die?”
I believe in telling the truth, and well, there’s no getting around that one. “Yes, baby, but hopefully not for a long, long time.”
He stood there silently for a moment and then said, “I don’t want you to die. I want to keep you forever.”
I still remember the way my heart felt when I realized my own Mother could and would die. I remember the words “I don’t want you to die” spilling out of my mouth just before the tears spilled out of my eyes. I was standing in the doorway of my sister’s bedroom in our old house. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but just thinking about it, I’m taken back to the enormity of the realization, the overwhelming hugeness of the concept of the death of my.own.mother.
My parenting motto, should anyone ask me is: “Don’t die.” There is so much competition, so much petty crap that all of us parents fall into with regards to how we are raising our children: Are we raising perfectly disciplined children who can sit through 4 hour meals like the French? Will my children be able to read in three languages by the time they are six? But really it all boils down to this: for most of us, the most important thing is that we are there for them. As in like we still exist on this planet. And that is what I hope and pray and ask for every day.
Today, while Elijah was watching me partake in a belly dancing DVD during Remy’s nap, apropos of nothing, he said, “When people die, do you see them again?”
Because I haven’t taken a definitive stance on what exactly happens when you die and where you go (and I likely won’t until I gain that particular experience), I stuck to the basics: heaven, people’s love stays with us even if we can’t see them in person, etc.
To which he responded: “When you go to heaven do you see other people who have died?”
I recently read The Lovely Bones (finally! I know I am the last person in the world to read it, but the wait was worth it, and I think being a parent made it an even better read), and one of my favorite parts was when the narrator’s dog arrives in heaven and is so excited to see her that he nearly knocks her over. With that in mind, I heartily assured Elijah that yes, you do.
And then he smiled and said, “It’ll be exciting to go to heaven.”
Followed by: “Dogs sleep on clouds there, right?”
I can’t say how much of these conversations are staying with him, but they haunt me. Regardless of our faiths and whether they dictate to us a certain after death reality, I think for most of us there remains some uncertainty as to the nuts and bolts of concepts such as eternity. As a mother (and a wife, daughter, sister, friend, among other things), I personally want to be able to reassure my loved ones that everything will be okay and that we will all be taken care of and together. So even if everything I have told my four-year-old is a lie, it’s a lie I am willing to tell for now.
And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom around here, let me give you another conversation that took place less than an hour later, while Elijah was eating a couple of Newman O’s.
With mouth full: “These are so good…I can’t stop eating them.”
“I could eat, like, an entire bag.”
Pleasure in the small things; it’s what living is all about anyways, right?