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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Heaven's Tire Swing

A few nights ago Megan had a hard time going to sleep. When I asked what was wrong, she explained that she couldn’t stop thinking about death and dying. The next morning at breakfast she said, “It would help if there was less talking about dying, especially with you and Daddy.” I guess between me talking about my mom and Tom talking about his new hospice job, we’ve been freaking her out.

I don’t believe in shielding children from death, but it is hard to know what to tell them. They have such practical concerns. “I hope there’s a tire swing and a jungle gym in heaven,” said Luke, about thirty seconds after Megan asked us to stop talking about it. Then at 6:30 this morning he climbed into my bed again and asked, “Will I see Mom and Dad in heaven? Will it be crowded?” I mumbled some sleepy reassurances, and Luke continued his speculation: “Maybe heaven is on Mars. Or maybe hell is on the sun, and heaven is on Pluto.” I mentioned that it was pretty cold on Pluto, and he said, “Well, it’s too cold to live on Pluto, but once you’re dead it doesn’t matter.” Good point.

I don’t know how to explain to a six-year-old that heaven’s not a place we can see with a strong telescope or that there's no fire-filled place that God sends the bad people, although some sincere folks do believe this, and if they’re right Luke might go to heaven, but his mom might not if she keeps losing her temper over the skateboarding in the dining room. At eight, Megan seems more aware of the ambiguity of it all. When I asked her why she was afraid to think about death she replied, “Because you can’t do anything about it.” Another good point.

I can see why people might avoid this topic with their kids. For one thing, parents like to have all the answers, to assure their children that they’ve got this world pretty well figured out. Well, we don’t, and being asked whether there are tire swings in heaven shows me up for the cosmic ignoramus I am. A mother at my Quaker meeting asked a group that was discussing Katrina, “How do we explain this to our children? What’s a Quaker explanation for a devastating hurricane? Where’s God’s will in all this?” We were out of time and decided to postpone figuring out God’s will, but the questions have stayed with me. I tend to fall back on the unsatisfying answer often given in my Roman Catholic upbringing: “It’s a mystery.”

The only thing I know for sure is that death is part of life, and we might as well get used to this idea when we’re young. I know families that won’t bring their children to funerals for fear of traumatizing them, but I think it would be more traumatic to grow up thinking that you are immortal until the day you find a lump in your breast or some other hint that maybe you aren’t. When I talk to friends whose parents who won’t write a will or acknowledge the inevitable, I’m thankful for the frankness with which my mother discusses her own approaching death. She has her own questions about the afterlife, but at least she isn’t afraid to ask them. That's something my children can learn from her.


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