08/08/2011 01:08 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2011

Death, Kindergarten and What The Topics Have in Common

Like most curious little boys, Z is a master of the startling nonsequitor. Brush-your-teeth time can go from a discussion of the virtues of watermelon flavored toothpaste to a passionate declaration that broccoli stems are superior to broccoli heads without notice or segue. I suspect this is a combination of a short attention span and a brain that is being flooded with new experiences and information on a daily basis. I find myself trying to puzzle out Z's train of thought and deduce how he got from his love of popcorn to the poop habits of marine animals in a single sentence.

Lately, two particular topics have come up on an increasingly regular basis: death and kindergarten. Kindergarten is about a week away so it's not hard to imagine why it's on his mind. And we have dealt with death in our home already; Karen lost both of her parents last year in the space of a very difficult ten weeks. Z knew Grandpa Henry and Grandma Eleanor well and is still processing the idea that they won't be coming to visit anymore.

But it's only recently that Z has begun articulating his thoughts on these subjects, frequently as if they were the same subject. It started unexpectedly at Trader Joe's and it went something like this:

"Daddy, when's your birthday?"
"In October, pal."
"Well, I don't want you to have a birthday this year."
"How come?"
"Because after you have a lot of birthdays you die and I don't want you to die so don't have a birthday this year, okay?"

This was the first time my mortality had come up and it was clear Z was brainstorming ways to keep me above ground as long as possible. But before I could assure him that I wasn't going to die for a long while he followed up, seamlessly, with:

"Is kindergarten all day long?"

A week or so later, in the car, our top of the lungs duet of "Tonight's Gonna Be A Good Night" was interrupted by the following declaration:

"Daddy, when you die I am going to talk to the doctor and find out where you are so I can dig you up and say I love you."

This was such a bizarre combination of loving and gross that I wrestled with an angle of approach. Do I tell him that I plan to be cremated or that doctors don't handle the burial part of their former patients? Should I mention that what he's talking about is, technically, illegal grave robbing or just say 'thanks, I love you too.' I was rescued from my dilemma as Z came out with the only logical follow up to such a statement:

"Do I still get outside playtime at Kindergarten?"

And that's when it hit me -- we weren't really talking about death or kindergarten, we were talking about change. These two seemingly ill-matched topics were, in fact, a perfect pairing in the mind of a thoughtful five-year-old. The full picture is too epic for him to see it in it's entirety, but he's getting flashes of a central truth of our existence: everything changes, life moves on. Z will not, forever, be my little boy and one day I won't be around to sing songs with in the car.

Even if he doesn't recognize it, Z has found the courage to talk about the exact issues I have been trying to avoid. My little boy is going to kindergarten and, in some odd way, that's a reminder that my time on this planet has begun a long, slow wind down. It's morbid but it's also true. And rather than hide from this reality, I am suddenly grateful that my son is giving us both the chance to talk about it. Truth be told, I am probably more distressed about both of these issues than he is.

"Z, you are going to love kindergarten. You're going to make new friends and have great teachers. They even have a special name for outside play time. It's called 'recess.' "

Z ponders all this for a long moment and then...

"Daddy, for your birthday you should have a bounce house."

"You know what, pal, I think I will."