A CHILD GLIMPSES
HEAVEN ON EARTH
Wigg"Daddy, if you make someone a promise and then that person dies, would you have to keep the promise?" When my daughter Marie was almost 6, she would ask me a death question about once a week. She wasn't worried about death, just curious. And once she'd received an answer or two, her curiosity would subside for awhile.
Before I could answer this week's question, I had to pin it down. "Do you mean, for example, if you promised me you'd never smoke cigars and then I died, would you have to keep your promise about cigars?"
"No," she said, "I mean, if I promised someone I'd go over to visit them, and then they died, would I still have to go?"
Another time, about an hour after a discussion of summer weather, Marie was coloring at the kitchen table under a ceiling fan while I was nearby peeling her an apple. Apparently speaking to her coloring book, Marie said slowly, "Summer, fall, winter, spring. Summer, fall, winter, spring. And over and over and over and over and over again," then she turned to me with a triumphant smile and concluded, "...then you die." Marie resumed her coloring as if she hadn't just laid bare the futility of the human condition. I looked down at the half-skinned apple and felt like going to bed.
Sometimes, Marie approaches her favorite topic from the side. "What if no more babies were born?" she asked another day.
"Well," I said, "Eventually, everybody would get old and die, and there'd be no more people."
"Then would animals live in the houses?" she asked.
"Do you mean like Mickey Mouse, wearing clothes and living like a person?" I asked.
"No," she said, "I mean like real squirrels and mice creeping in."
"They probably would," I said.
"Oh," she said, satisfied.
In the next session, Marie fired a volley of questions about burial procedures. "Do people get buried in a box?" "Why is it called a coffin?" "Do people wear clothes when they get buried?" "Why don't they just throw a dead person into a hole? Nothing can hurt you when you're dead, right?" This last remark, although it contained some practical wisdom, made me hope she becomes more sentimental by the time she makes my final arrangements.
Another day, she was back on a more philosophical plane asking, "Do all people have endings?"
I'd already told her that everyone dies, so I figured this was an afterlife question. "People with children don't die completely. Part of them keeps living in their children and their children's children."
"Oh," she said quietly. I felt kind of bad; a couple of Marie's playmates were bound for Heaven when THEY die. The vicarious, absentee immortality I was laying out for Marie was pretty pale stuff by comparison, but it's all I had to offer. Or so I thought, until Marie got a glimpse of an earthly paradise about 10 days later.
I was about to go collect the babysitter, so my wife and I could go out to a movie. Marie asked, "If you and Mommy died, who would take care of Sally and me?"
A fair question. "You'd go live with Aunt Laura and Uncle Roger," I said. They'd agreed to this the previous summer.
But to Marie, the prospect was more than OK. Laura and Roger always treat our kids with special kindness, and they have three children of their own who are idolized by Marie. Roger, who manages a pet store, is a hard worker and an excellent provider. His family lives well in a lovely home. Furthermore, this genial trafficker in bunnies and gerbils has been known to take his work home with him.
Marie's eyes lit up at the prospect, and I wished I'd picked a less attractive contingency plan. But, Marie had no wizened, gray Uncle Henry and Aunt Em with a windblown farm on a dismal prairie; the cheerful opulence of Laura and Roger would have to do. Marie demanded: "How would Aunt Laura know to come and get us?" Marie didn't want to miss a minute of the good life.
I told her the police would probably make a few phone calls after our bodies were discovered, and eventually, word would reach Laura and Roger. This conversation was getting too specific, forcing me to imagine men in blue searching my pockets for ID, but I never flinch from a fair question. "I'll tell you what," I said, "I'll put Aunt Laura's phone number near the phone, and if anything happens, you can call her yourself."
"OK, Daddy. Thanks," she said with no more emotion than the trace of gratitude you'd feel when the dry-cleaner hands over your trousers.
For about two weeks, no further reference was made to this chat, and I was hoping that Marie had mentally filed this information under "Reassurances." But then, she heard about a special outing her cousins were taking. "Just think, Daddy," she said wistfully, "If you and Mommy were dead, I'd be at the circus right now." One thing about little Marie, you always knew what she was thinking.