The friendly landscaper bent over a shrub rose. "We're all going to die one day," my 3-year-old tells him. "You're going to die."
"Let's go inside and get a juice box," I say to my son, Jack. I shrug at the landscaper. Hopefully, the guy has kids or grandkids, so he won't think we're complete whack jobs.
Death has become a topic in our house. My son knows that his grandfather -- my husband's father -- died before he was born. Looking at a picture of him, Jack asked, "Why'd he die, daddy?"
"He was old." My husband was trying to be reassuring. He wasn't old -- he was in his early sixties.
Jack noticed. "He's not old." Then, "Are you going to die, daddy?"
"Yes, but not for a long, long time."
"Am I going to die?"
"Everybody dies, but not for a long, long time."
"What's 'a long, long time,' mommy?"
And so it goes. We've been having death conversations daily. It probably doesn't help that one of Jack's favorite songs right now is "American Pie" or that our very elderly dog is on the cusp of leaving us. When Jack asks about death, we try not to fall on one side of that thin, gymnastics balance beam between telling him the truth appropriate for his age while still making him feel safe. We answer only the question he asks. But how does one make a 3-year-old feel safe about death without lying? I don't feel safe about death. I'm 39.
My husband and I are not organized-religion people. We won't talk to our son in absolutes about a heaven or an afterlife, and, so far, he hasn't asked. He's asked what happens when someone dies, and we said they "go away."
"In a car?"
"Will he come back?"
When he does ask, though, specifically where we go when we die -- and we know he will -- we will tell him the different things that people believe about death and what my husband and I as individuals believe, because we know no one living knows the actual answer. And then, when Jack is older, he can choose what he believes.
But for now, our strategy is this: We tell him that yes, people do die. That we will die. That he will die. But not before he has a long, long life. One full of playgrounds, Goldfish crackers, school and Lightning McQueen. One where he'll get to drive a real car on a real road. Where, one day, maybe he'll get married and have a baby. That he might even own a house or a boat. Maybe he'll even be a grandfather. That, and so much more, we tell him, is the long, long time.
It seems to satisfy him.
It doesn't satisfy me. It feels, at best, like suppositions and at worst, like lies. Because I know that they're all guarantees I can't make. But of course, he, at 3, need not know this. So I do what we can do. We make a will. Are there people in place to love him, should my husband or I not get the long, long time? I take stock. Is he happy? Secure? Do we love him enough for an entire lifetime already? Is that possible?
I occasionally wonder what that landscaper went home and told his wife or partner that day. "This tiny kid, he told me we were all going to die!" Did he laugh? Or did it make him uncomfortable? Maybe he has a better relationship with death than I do. I'm trying hard to make sure that my son, at least, does. That he understands death, as best he can, for now. As much as any of us can, for now.