Our son isn’t quite five-years-old. From the bathtub, he looked up at me and asked, “Daddy, will the cats die?”
Whoa. Where did this come from? Not wanting to lie to him, I told him, “Yes, they will die someday. We will all die someday.” The tears begin to well up in his eyes.
Oh No! What had I done? Should I have lied to him?
The tears grew. Like Indiana Jones’s boulder, they threatened to bowl me down. “But I don’t wanna die!”
I started tearing up with him. “Don’t worry about this right now, buddy; you’re not even five yet.”
He was not convinced. Where was this in the parental instruction manual?
I tried to think of the explanation that would provide him some peace. I was raised Catholic, so there is always the “heaven” story, but I don’t really believe that. At least not in a traditional “St. Peter and the Pearly Gates” kind of way.
Since I was young, I hoped that when we die, as long as we were good people, we got to go to heaven and be with the people we wanted to be with. I always imagined seeing my grandfather and playing some guitar with him. Maybe throwing a tennis ball with my childhood dog.
Personalized heaven. It’s at least as good a version as the Catholic one. Much better, in fact. What did I know? It gave me comfort as a child, so why wouldn’t it work for him?
Besides, does anyone know what really happens? (This is rhetorical. Please don’t send hate mail my way.)
He was still upset and continued to ask questions, so I prepared to tell him my theory about how we get to be with the ones we love and have all our favorite people, things, and pets near us. I tightened up my dad’s pants and steadied myself.
“Listen, pal. When we die, we go to a place called Heaven, where we get to be with all the people we love.”
Through tears, “Can I keep all my toys?”
“Sure, buddy. All your favorite things stay with you.”
“Will we get a new house?” he asked.
“But where will I sleep?”
“In your bed, just like you do now.”
“So will I get all my baby toys back?”
Wait, what’s happening here. “Sure, buddy. All your favorite things.”
“Will Santa know where to find us?
ABORT! ABORT! ABORT! “Ummm, sure. He always knows where we are.”
“Daddy, I can’t wait to die and open presents!”
“Uhhh, wait, buddy, that’s not really what I meant…”
“I wonder what I’ll get for Christmas!”
This was going sideways. “I don’t know. It’ll be a surprise.”
“Daddy, will Max and Cosmo (our cats) be there in our new house in heaven?”
“Yes, pal.” Ugh. This crisis was snowballing. I was running out of answers, and I wanted to keep the white lies to a minimum. Also, I didn’t want to convince him that death led to utopia.
“But what happens when…”
This had to stop. “Okay, listen, Friend. This isn’t anything you have to worry about right now. But I think that when we die, we go to heaven where all the best parts of our lives are there for us. It’s very sad for those of us left here on Earth, but we’ll all be together someday and…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His fertile little mind had moved on with life, and I was the one left reeling and in tears, trying to comfort him in his time of crisis. I got him dressed and to the kitchen table for dinner, where he seemed to be himself again.
While I’m sure he was scared of whatever planted that little seed in his mind, I couldn’t imagine where it came from. More than anything, I realized that I was woefully unprepared for this line of questioning. He was our second child, and the first hadn’t thrown anything this serious at us at this age.
One of the things I’ve always wondered as a parent who grew up Catholic was what I would tell my kids. I’m not a Catholic anymore and have different beliefs now. Maybe I’ve done them wrong, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell. When they’re old enough, I’ll let them make their own decisions, though I’ll never tell them what they can and can’t believe in.
So, I went to the kitchen and made some notes in a notebook. I sat down for dinner and hoped that he had forgotten about it all. At least long enough for me to figure out what to say to him.
Then, as he ate his mac and cheese, he proceeds to tell his older sister about how, when we die, there will be all kinds of toys to play with UNDERGROUND, and that Santa will bring us awesome toys and we’ll play with the kitties and have a party in heaven.
Oh, the humanity.