My son, like every other child in the world, is a complete mystery to me. He interval trains with bursts of sweet, snuggly, thoughtful, kind, funny, and loving juxtaposed with obstinate, forgetful, melty and annoying. The days can seesaw wildly from extremes, which is why I treasure bedtime. Not because it means I can finally get a glass of wine, although there is that. I love bedtime because it's when some of the most challenging and beautiful things happen. I don't know if it's the darkness or the warmth of lying next to each other or the quiet I insist on as we put the day behind us, but in the handful of moments before he falls asleep, my son reveals himself to me in ways he doesn't during the day. Sometimes he's silly and hyped-up and out of control and others he's exhausted and cranky, but now and then he divulges what scares him and asks questions that he voices slowly and hesitantly in a whispered hush.
I curl behind him and try my best to answer. I rely on the false sense of anonymity that comes with talking to someone's back to tackle the harder questions -- the ones that make me wonder if he already needs a therapist or if I'm failing him. I get an extra second to collect myself when he can't look into my eyes and I'm grateful for it. Our snuggling renders him more oblivious than usual, which gives me a heartbeat to find better words than the ones that first come to mind.
I never know what to expect -- epiphanies often follow the mundane. Like last Wednesday. It started off simply enough. We talked about the school day, his favorite color and what he wanted to do that weekend. Then this:
Little Dude: "Mommy, I'll love you forever. Even when I'm dead."
Wait a second. Weren't we just planning to go to the playground? I'm not sure how to respond. I wonder what has brought this on. I pause. He keeps going.
LD: "You'll die before me, right?"
I'm silent, still trying to catch up.
LD: "Do you think we come back to life again when we die? Here's what I think. I think we come back to life, but we don't know about our other life. It's like you have a new body on top of you. With different eyes and different hair."
I'm stunned. No one we know has died lately and we've never talked about reincarnation. I have no idea where this is coming from.
LD: "What do you think mommy?"
Time to get in the game. This deer-in-the-headlights thing has gone on long enough.
Me: "I don't know."
Brilliant girlfriend. Good job. Stellar. You win first prize for least helpful mother ever. Let's see if you can do better.
LD: "Mommy, do you miss your grandmother?"
Where is this coming from? My grandmother died 15 years ago. I don't talk about her often, at least not in front of the kids. I wonder if this is her way of getting my attention from beyond the grave. If the woman has something to say, she could do it directly and not use my kid as a go-between.
Me: "Yes, I do."
LD: "Did you see her go to heaven? When she died, did you watch her die and then her body was gone? Did she just disappear?"
I am not ready for existential discussions about the possibility and characteristics of an afterlife. I haven't had my wine yet.
Me: "I don't think that's how it works."
LD: "How does it work?"
Me: "I think our bodies die and then our spirits go away."
LD: "To heaven?"
Me: "I'm not sure, but some people think so."
I'm screwing this up. Should I be offering him something more concrete? Is he looking for structure or just wondering aloud? Is he afraid of dying? Does he know something I don't? Yesterday he asked me if God was real -- do I have to start taking him to church? I'm getting teary. I'm not sure why. He's so innocent and I'm so jaded and I want to preserve this curiosity and openness forever, but I can't. He thinks I know the answers. He still believes that there are answers and not just more questions.
LD: "Mommy, what's heaven like?"
Oh my darling boy. I wish I knew. I wish I had THE answer for you. I'm full-on weepy now because the talk of dying makes me think of him dying and I cannot even go there. I'm grateful he doesn't notice and that he can't see my face. I take a deep breath and give him the only answer I have. The one that I want to believe is true, even though I have great doubts.
Me: "If there is a heaven, I think it must be the most beautiful place you can imagine. Somewhere you would always be happy and safe and loved. It would be filled with the people and things and ideas you love most. I think heaven is different for everyone. What would your heaven look like?"
I am not surprised. He pauses.
LD: "Mommy, what would your heaven look like?"
Crying silently behind him, I gave him an answer, for once utterly and absolutely sure of its truth.
"My heaven would look exactly like our life right here."