Why do my kids always save the hard questions for when Jason isn’t around? It always seems to be me – just me – hanging out, eating my breakfast like it’s any other day when Gryffin decides to ask “So… how did that baby get into Emily’s belly anyway?” And this weekend while Jason was backpacking, Gryffin finally broached the topic of death. We’ve been wondering when it would come up but decided that we would wait until he asked. Before I had kids, I think I assumed these would be neat and tidy conversations. Well, no, scratch that. I’m not sure I really thought about it at all. But if I had thought about the conversations, I never would have guessed they would be so hard.
Take the sex question. Jason and I are open about our bodies and our body parts and have always tried to answer the boys’ questions honestly and factually. No shame. No big thing. But it’s still… awkward. Picture Isaiah, hands on his knees, curiously peering up my legs and saying “Mama… mama no ha’ penis?” Nope. Nope, I sure don’t, son. Or explaining over breakfast how exactly that baby DID get into Emily’s belly and praying like mad that Gryffin won’t bring it up at the baby shower later that day. But the thing with the sex questions is that they are really only awkward for ME. The boys don’t find it awkward at all. And why should they? They move seamlessly from chatting about their penises to chatting about the tractor they saw yesterday on the way to preschool. No big thing.
But death? Death is so much harder, so much messier and painful to discuss. It’s not as easy to be factual and straightforward about death. We were driving in the car Saturday morning and Gryffin asks me, completely out of the blue, about my grandmas. I told him about my still-living grandmother, Pat, and left it at that. But he kept pushing. He’s got two grandmas so he knew that I’d left one out. I continued to evade his questions because I was scared and I didn’t want to have this conversation by myself. I told him that my other grandmother’s name was Nancy, like mine, but that we called her Ed. I hoped he would be sidetracked by the cool nickname but no. He was feeling relentless and asked where she was and why he didn’t know her.
I don’t usually sweat much but I honestly felt a little clammy as I answered that she had died a few years ago. If you don’t have kids, maybe my reaction sounds a little… over the top? Like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? I think that’s what I would have thought 5 years ago. But this was Gryffin’s very first time hearing about death. And it pained me to tell him about it. He seemed instinctually to have imagined something so different than what I was telling him and he had so, so many questions.
Jason and I are Christians but answering, “you go to heaven to be with Jesus after you die,” while ultimately part of our theology, seems too glib, too easy and ultimately limiting in scope and imagination. Even if they one day choose something different, a different faith or a different path, or no faith at all, I want to give Gryffin and Isaiah a wide open, breathtaking, beautiful theology of heaven. And that started last Saturday in the car on the way to a birthday party.
Isaiah was not feeling cooperative about photos on Mother’s Day. This was the best I got!
Here’s how part of the conversation went, in all it’s winding 4-year-old and 3-year-old fashion… don’t judge, I did my best!
Gryffin: What is “died”?
Me: Well, people don’t live on and on and on forever… here on earth…in this life. People die when their life here is finished. My grandma died.
Gryffin: And then what? Where do they go when they’re died?
Me: Papa and I think that after you die you will live forever in the presence of God
Gryffin: Is it heaven?
Me: Yes, we call it heaven.
Gryffin: Have you been there?
Me: No, I haven’t been there. That’s the hard part — nobody has ever been there and come back to tell us about it. Maybe because it’s just too awesome to come back? I don’t know.
Isaiah interjects: But how will we get home?
and before I can come up with an answer, he gives his own answer…
Isaiah: Maybe at the airport…
Gryffin: I don’t think there is an airport at heaven, Bups. Is there, Mama?
Me: No, I don’t think there is an airport like we know it. But I really don’t know.
Gryffin: Will we be together, you and me and Buppy and Papa?
Me: I think so, yes. I don’t know if we will finish our life here at the same time but I do think we’ll be together in some way. And I think we will love each other more than we ever have before.
Gryffin: So God isn’t here? With us?
Me: Well, that’s the amazing thing about God. God is everywhere. God is in heaven, with people who are no longer living here with us. And God is here, with us. God is in all things and through all things, above all things and underneath all things…
Gryffin: Is God in our car?
Me: Yes! God is in our car, God is in you, God is in me, God is in the water, on that boat, in your bed, God is in the jail (a big topic of conversation lately, jail), in our house, in the garden, and the sky and…
Gryffin: Mama! Is God in our exhaust pipe?
Me: He’s totally in our exhaust pipe!
Gryffin: Cool… I wonder if God is all smokey in there…
I sure hope that God in our exhaust pipe isn’t too sacrilegious but that’s about as holy as it gets for my four-year-old. Anyhow, the conversation moved in a new direction after that and it left me feeling grateful that this will be an ongoing conversation (yes, like the sex one… seriously, it just keeps going and going and going…) and that I will have more opportunities to answer these unending questions in a way that inspires my kids to hope rather than fear.
It’s not that my faith is unwavering. Sometimes I feel paralyzed with the fear of death, the fear of dying before my boys grow up, the fear of Jason or Isaiah or Gryffin dying. Life feels so sad and overwhelming at times, more so than ever lately. But my theology of heaven has taken root over the years and what was once a boring one-dimensional similitude of sitting around singing for all eternity has given way to a vision that far surpasses what I ever dreamed it could be. So I choose to keep hoping even when I’m in the throes of doubt; I choose to keep tugging and pulling at my image of heaven until it can sweep me up in it. Books have always helped me expand the outer reaches of my imagination and although I think I have quoted it before, this has been my most stalwart image of what it might be like to die and see what comes next. It’s from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, when the unicorn glimpses Narnia for the first time.
“I have come home at last. This is my real country. I belong here. This is the land I’ve been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now! The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this.”
I sure hope that’s what it’s like. In Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry, “…to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Good theologian, that Dumbledore. I’m not sure my mind is all that well organized but I like to think of death that way. And I’d like to impart at least some sense of that adventure to Gryffin and Isaiah– you know, amidst all the endless Q&A about sex and death and armadillos and jail and such.