Samuel is going to die. We don’t know when or exactly how, but it won’t be anytime soon, we hope. He is, after all, just weeks shy of his sixth birthday, and full of the frenetic vitality of a moth before the flame. But on our recent trip to visit his grandparents, his understanding of mortality cemented, and not just mortality in general, but specifically his mortality. He would have rather stayed ignorant.
The grandparents live in Deep South Texas, which, if you ask any Texan, is not to be confused with North, South, Central or West Texas. Deep South is just an hour from where the Rio Grande anemically trickles into the Gulf of Mexico. More people in this patch of America speak Spanish than don’t, and the grandparents, known to the Mexicans as Q-Tips for their white hair and shoes, are part of the aging retirement community that don’t. The wind there blows more or less all the time, a blessing in March and a scourge of sandy grit in August. Shaggy, ornamental palm trees, inconsistently shaved, swagger on the sides of the roads like wealthy drunks. Birds of unusual colors and sizes dot the skies. Instead of crows in the country and pigeons in the cities, they have plagues of grackles – medium-sized birds with black iridescent feathers, alien eyes, and an astoundingly large vocabulary. They can chirp, wolf whistle, and scream in an eerily human fashion, but the most interesting noise they make is an odd crinkly sound like aluminum foil being chewed and swallowed.
This is where the grandparents have come to retire, for the warmth and the bird watching. Their home is the smallest permanent dwelling I have ever slept in. Inside, from one end to the other, is a ship’s bathroom, a bedroom just large enough for the king bed, a clean and serviceable kitchen, and the sitting room. The rest of the house is en plein air. The side door opens to an enclosed courtyard with a sun-drenched, ten by ten foot plot of grass and a paved concrete patio shaded with an overhang. You don’t play handball here, not merely because you might break a flowering cactus, but because one wall of the courtyard is the exterior wall of the neighboring house. This efficient building pattern continues down the line of homes, so that a squirrel with asbestos claws could scamper over the asphalt shingles from one end of the block to the other. The entire gated community is four long streets forming a military square that surrounds a golf course, with a few short cul-de-sacs to pad out the lots. And despite the promises made by the developer to covenant signers, the golf course is a private, pay-per-use course and the original clubhouse swimming pool has now been filled with cement due to fear of liability.
We had visited several times over the years, but this was our first visit since Granddaddy’s quarantine. For a man who has never admitted to being sick a day in his life, he spent an extended and unplanned detour last summer in a Jefferson, Missouri hospital during an RV vacation, and then weeks at home with an oxygen tank under quarantine.
Slowly he recovered. I knew him to be a tough old bird, warm, generous, and opinionated by nature, who neither the navy nor his first wife could subdue. It was reassuring on this visit to see him puttering around with the table saw, rasps, and nail gun in the garage, building a toy boat for Samuel, while his wife worked with Rose sewing a cape for her stuffed snuggle bunny, but it was clear that they both operated in a lower gear than our last. A grandparent can crow over a grandchild’s growth rings every year, but one doesn’t mention the relentless erosion of vigor in the grandparent. Not directly. You might note the large number of pills in the pill box, or listen to how the neighbors rebuilt Granddaddy’s back fence while he was on medical quarantine, and you connect the dots.
They could still play tour guide for us. We visited the USS Lexington museum in dry dock up at Corpus Christi one day and spent hours on the beach at South Padre Island another day. On the off days we read, and cooked, watched the children play pretend while we played cards. These trips are hard on my mid-life crisis, and I found it hard to relax and play cards. Card playing has often struck me as something one does to pass the time while waiting for Death. At least it did in that slow, sunny environment.
No, I lie. I enjoy cards, but I supposed my mortality has lately become like another child in the family, vying for my attention, increasingly insistent as the day progresses.
Thursday night, too tired to cook, we held hands together around two boxes of Pizza Hut pizza, one cheese, one half sausage/half veggie while Granddaddy led the blessing.
“heavenly father,” Granddaddy mumbled in gruff baritone, “we thank you for the bounty of this meal the glorious weather that we’ve enjoyed today the many blessings you bestow upon us and the gift of our grandchildren …” The words ran together, rising and falling in long waves, pausing only to catch breath rather than punctuate. I watched the children silently adapt to this unfamiliar ritual, and I cringed inwardly waiting for the awkward punch line to which we were careening. “… we ask you to look over us and give us your blessing in all things as we pray in jesus’ name amen.”
“Amen,” Granny repeated, and the rest of us smiled politely without saying a word. Without a pause, Granddaddy said loudly and with a hint of mock disgust, “Now who’s having some of this vegetarian pizza?”
“Me! Me!” cries Rose.
Samuel is usually a Greek Chorus to his older sister in these situations, but instead he leaned over to whisper into Mama’s ear, too quietly for anyone else to hear.
“Granny and Granddaddy are Christian,” he said, stating a fact.
Mama nodded at him.
“And we’re Jewish, right?”
“Right,” Mama whispered back, relieved that, not only had he figured this out, but he knew to say it out loud would make awkward dinner conversation. Unfortunately, his sister was not so savvy.
“What?” cried Rose. “What is Samuel saying?”
“None of your bees wax, missy,” Mama answered, and served her a slice of pizza.
Rose and Granny made angel food cake for dessert, with strawberries from Mexico and Cool Whip. Cool Whip is not something we would normally eat at home, and as the plastic container went round, I thought to myself, “Water, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening,” but I served it to my children anyway and dropped a large spoonful on my strawberries, thanking our hosts. Time, age, and many visits have eroded the edges of our differences. It is not so difficult anymore to bend where possible.
After dinner, we sat in chairs around a table on the breezeway patio, Granny shawl-wrapped against the cooler night air. She was playing Gin Rummy with Dawn, but it was time for the evening’s treat – popcorn and mini chocolate chips. Rose served, spilling only one bowl of popcorn. I cut the children’s chocolate chip servings in half – Granny may want to spoil them, but I have to live with the hyperactive consequences before bed. Rose mixed her popcorn and chips together in a single bowl and then picked them out and ate them separately. She asked me for funny family stories and gross ones too, so I recalled some incidents from a teenage trip to Israel. The grandparents listened, with polite, expressionless faces, and I became conscious of their quiet presence, afraid of what they might be thinking, of saying anything that might offend them. Half way through our bowls, Samuel picked up something in the conversation and his mind motored along with it quietly. I thought he was merely eating. Had I been listening I might have heard the timer in his head ping. During a pause, he said in an alarmed, mouse-quiet voice, “Papa.”
I looked over and his eyes had filled up with tears.
“Sam,” I say putting down my bowl. “What’s wrong?”
“Papa, I just had a thought… A scary thought.”
“What is it?”
“I just thought that someday I’m going to die. And I’m going to be there, like sleeping but not dreaming, for how long and not ever going to wake up again.” The tears began to flow freely now.
Do you remember when you first learned you were going to die? I do, and like most of the traumatic experiences of my childhood, it was instigated by my oldest brother. I was six years old, and my father was in the back yard raking leaves, and my oldest brother said to me while we were under an ancient sour cherry tree, “Well of course you are going to die. Everybody dies someday.” He was perhaps impatient or disgusted with my naiveté, but either way a tsunami of panic chemicals bathed my cerebral cortex and bleached away my memory of anything that had happened before that moment, and I mean anything in my entire six years. I really have very few memories of life before this incident. I remember that moment though, the corrugated cherry trunk weeping with sap, the smell of moldering leaves, the weak autumn sunlight, and the hot tears turning to slivers of ice on my face as I went running to my father.
Somehow through the blubbering, my father understood. He held me and told me that I wasn’t going to die, not for a very long, long time. His words and touch soon calmed me down. OK, I thought to myself. Get a grip. It’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow. I get a long reprieve. Maybe I can figure some way out of this. An exemption or dispensation or something.
Forty years later, I picked Sam up and bundled him in my arms. For a moment I said nothing, just rocked him and let the wave of tears run its course, remembering the cherry tree and my father’s words. When he was calm enough, I repeated those words to him.
“Samuel, you’re scared of dying?”
“Buddy, you aren’t going to die for a very long, long time.”
“When am I going to die?”
Wait. This isn’t part of the script.
“Well, uh … not for maybe eighty years or so. I don’t know exactly. But you’ve got a long full life ahead of you.”
“But what happens after that?”
“What do you mean?”
Actually, I know what he means, but I’m stalling. My son, at six years old, is already way smarter than I was at six years old. I had never asked my Dad such a question.
I am thankful for Granny and Granddaddy’s respectful and tacit silence on the subject, though I know they are listening. God bless them, they wouldn’t dare interfere here, even though they have very certain and solid answers that guide their life. Their refrigerator used to have a magnet that read, “Don’t ask God for favors. Just report for duty.”
But I have no sure answers. I don’t mean that I’m agnostic or skeptical or undecided in my beliefs. Indeed, I believe rather certainly that what happens after we die is not something that our Maker intended us to know. Whatever God expects of us, he expects it without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. He expects that we should do it out of love simply because He created us. I don’t know if other people think this way. It is certainly similar to the attitude I take toward parenting, and so far it has worked remarkably well. But I recognize that this is not reassuring to a six year old, and perhaps not something the Grandparents would approve of either. I wish I did not have to have this conversation in front of them. At that moment, I would have happily lied to Sam if I thought it would cheer him up and keep the family peace. But he can smell a lie a mile away, and he remembers them.
“Samuel,” I started, “I don’t know. Some people believe that when you die, you go to sleep without dreams for a long time, until someday God wakes you up again, and we all get to live in another world. A better world.”
He was not reassured, bravely trying to hold in the tears, and his words were thick. “How long?”
“How long do I sleep?”
“A long time.”
“Like, a hundred days? Papa, I don’t want to sleep that long. I’ll be all alone!”
“Well, it doesn’t feel like a hundred days. It feels like almost no time at all.”
“What? Really? Wait… How?”
“I don’t know the ‘how.’ And anyway, that’s only what some people believe. Other people believe other things. No one really knows for sure.”
I was not doing a good job of this. I actually had something I wanted to say to him, something specific and reassuring, but I was caught unprepared, tongue-tied, and unpleasantly aware of four other pairs of eyes on me. I was looking for the right words that would be honest, reassuring, and not upset the grandparents, but his brain was three steps ahead of me asking new questions.
“Papa,” he said before I could continue, “I don’t want to believe something if it isn’t true.”
That stopped me cold. Somewhere on the other side of the back fence, the wail of an ambulance passed by. A tiny moth fluttered by my face, and then things were quite quiet. I heard another mouse-like voice say, “Papa?” but this time it was Rose, sitting in her chair with her knees bunched up to belly, absently rubbing her lip with a piece of popcorn. “Can we please talk about something else? This is making me really uncomfortable.”
We changed the conversation for Rose. Samuel, remembering his popcorn and chocolate, trundled back to his chair. He ate his snack in small bites like he usually does, half-listening to everyone around him. Eventually, everyone else finished and went inside to get ready for bed, but I waited as Samuel nibbled, last to finish as always. He still wasn’t half done with his chocolate when Dawn popped her head out the door. She had been getting Rose ready for bed, and she wondered what was keeping Samuel, who was now sitting in my lap again, his back to the door. I told her we’d be in after he was done eating. She closed the door.
“Are you ready for me to answer your question? About what happens after you die?”
He finished his bite and said, “Yes.” Nervous. Expectant. Waiting for bad news, hoping for good news.
“The answer really is, I don’t know. Nobody knows. Dying is like going through a door and never coming back. No one comes back to tell us what’s on the other side, so no one knows for sure.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed, a little scared, the tears starting to fall.
“Wait. I’m not done. There’s something more. Something that I believe to be true.” I paused to make sure he was still with me, that I hadn’t upset him too badly. He began to eat again, tiny bites, but he was watching me.
“You have a soul. You know what a soul is? It’s a part of you, but it isn’t a part of your body like a liver or heart or brain or skin or even a cell. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it. But it feels, and loves, and maybe wants and dreams. And the older you get, the more you’ll feel it, if you can learn to be quiet with it – like lying under the stars at night with nothing to do or think about. And after you die, Sam, this soul of yours is still there, and it still feels, and loves, and wants.”
Surprisingly, this worked. At least, he didn’t start crying immediately. He thought about it. He thought of other questions, other fears. Part of him was still focused on the idea that, after he died, he wouldn’t ever get his body back, and this is a Bad Thing. More tears and confusion and scary parts, not least of which was that he would have nightmares about this (ever the practical boy), but he was past the hysteria. He liked this idea of a soul. It was hopeful and believable. Papa believes it, anyway.
Dawn popped her head out again, but her impatience vanished when she saw the tears on Samuel’s face. No screams or wails, just quiet tears dropping down. She came out and sat holding him in her lap while I brought her up to speed on the salient points. She added a few ideas of her own that meshed with mine, but it was the warm smell of her sweat that calmed him.
He looked tired. It had been a hard night. I took him inside to brush his teeth and asked him if he felt any better. The words come slowly, with pauses. He was so ready for bed.
“Yes… But Papa… I’m thirsty… And I’m still a little scared… And I’m bored.”
“Yeah. I’m thirsty, and I’m scared of having nightmares. And I’m bored.”
“Well, let’s brush your teeth and get you to bed.”