First, let me say that I know from tough questions bubbling up from the back seat. I have already handled, on previous occasions, the question of what war is, an explanation of gay marriage and, regarding racial discrimination, “but that was all a long time ago, right?” And I have fielded, also while driving, a lengthy discussion among all four kids regarding why and how my youngest son, then three, could indeed “get a baby” if he chose to marry his best friend Trevor. I’ve always known the big conversations take place in the car. I hadn’t realized it started this young, but I’m always happy to talk.
So when the highest-pitched voice in the back seat demanded to know where we go when we die as we cruised down Route 10, about 15 minutes from home, I was ready to answer. I’m always ready. It was the anniversary of 9/11, and I was already in the middle of a tough conversation with her oldest brother, so 5-year-old Rory’s query actually came as a relief. I may not have a great answer to that one, but at least I’ve answered it before.
But then her four-year-old brother Wyatt responded, quite cheerfully and confidently. “To Heaven.”
I know that’s the standard line re: the afterlife. “To heaven” is actually, in its own way, the perfect answer/non-answer for young kids, because after all, heavenâ€”what’s heaven? It can mean that you sit at the right hand of God, or that your soul is granted or otherwise experiences eternal rest, or peace. It can mean fluffy clouds or virgins and cheeseburgers. It can mean “I know, absolutely,” or it can mean “I really don’t know, but whatever it is, I’m confident that it’s a good thing.” It’s nicely definitive without really defining anything, and the child can, one supposes, take it from there.
But that’s not really what we do in our family. (Well, it’s not really what I do. My husband turns up the radio.) No, with the exception of Santa Claus, I go in for the absolute truth, even if the absolute truth is really nothing more than an absolute uncertainty. If I don’t know, I say I don’t know. And I don’t know about “heaven.” I only wish I did.
According to the experts consulted by Bruce Feiler for his column in the New York Times this past weekend, I’m exactly right. “If you want to share with your kids your deepest beliefs,” Rabbi David Wolfe, author of “Teaching Your Children About God,” told Feiler. “your deepest beliefs are not about shopping. They’re about what happens after you die, or what life is about.” Feiler’s daughter asked “if I speak to God, will he listen?” Felier doesn’t say, but I imagine him thinking, well, define God. Define speak. Define listen. After all, an honest answer to that question would require an agreement on those things, just as an honest answer to question of an afterlife can’t turn on a pleasantly hazy “heaven.”
I reject the literal “heaven,” the one with the the clouds (and the virgins and the cheeseburgers). I don’t doubt that something happens to you when you die, but the literal vision that the word “heaven” conjures up for me isn’t one I want my kids to think I endorse. I still remember a character in a book I read as a child, who’d been told by the preacher that heaven was “up there” at a wake and subsequently believed it to be located in “Simon Fletcher’s garret.” I shy away from the word heaven because others have invested it with characteristics I don’t accept, and because when one of my kids drops it into conversation, I know it hasn’t come from meâ€”so I don’t know what it means. My response has always been something along the lines of “I’m not sure, but even when your body dies, the part of you that’s important stays with the people you love somehow.” I’ve modified that for the occasion, even to being very specific in promising the child whose grandfather’s funeral left him with a fear of being left “down in the dirt” that no matter what happens, I will never, ever leave himâ€”but I’ve never pretended to believe that death offers some sort of actual destination. Therefore, no “heaven.”
I had not, however, reckoned with Rory. We adopted Rory at almost four, and she had a life and a family before she shared ours. When I contradicted Wyatt, however mildly, (I said something like “I don’t really believe that. I don’t think there’s really a place you ‘go.’ I think your body is gone, and the part of you that thinks and loves and is you kind of stays in the memories of the people you love”) Rory became hysterical. She started to cry. “But where you GO?” she demanded, and I kind of repeated that I didn’t think you really “go” anywhere, and she said I didn’t understand, didn’t understand what she was saying, wasn’t listening, because “WHERE YOU GO?”
By the time we got home she was screaming and sobbing, deeply embroiled her own unique version of a grief-stricken temper tantrum. It took me at least half an hour to calm her down. Butâ€”stupidlyâ€” less than a week later I did it again. She brought it up this time, asking about a dog we had before she arrived, a dog she knew had died. “But where she go?” Rory demanded. I coughed up the same idea, about how even though her body was gone, she was still here, because we remembered her…and it started again. Rory was hysterical within seconds. “But where she GO? You not listening me. Where she GO?” It didn’t matter what I said by then. Rory, at least, was gone already.
It was like a return to the first days after Rory came home with us from China, when Rory fought a hundred screaming battles with me and with herself from that car seat. Her grief and misery was beyond her ability to control it. This wasn’t petty, and it wasn’t one of Rory’s convenient ploys for attention (when another child has my focus, Rory’s been known to tap me on the arm and announce “I want go back China.”) Whatever was happening to Rory was coming from somewhere inside her we hadn’t been, and it wasn’t about whether I was listening to her. Or maybe it was.
I know Rory’s foster family, and I know something of the history of the three-plus years she spent with them. They are American evangelical Christians with a fundamental belief in God and in Christ that obviously goes far beyond lip service. They act on their faith every day. They work with the orphanages in their region and take in kids who aren’t thriving, which sometimes means kids like my daughter, who need their help to heal, but also means kids whom no love can heal. I know children died in her foster home while Rory was there. I don’t know where those children went when they died, any more than I know what happened to the souls or spirits of the victims of 9/11. But I begin to suspect that Rory thinks she knows, and that whatever she knows, or believes, is far, far more important to her than the truth of ambiguity is to me.
And I don’t think I need to mess with that.
So when this comes up againâ€”and it willâ€”I’ll put a whole lot less emphasis on sharing my own doubts and beliefs, and try to give Rory room to share hers. “Where do you think they go?” I’ll ask, and if she can’t answer, I’ll meet her more than half way. Does she think they go to heaven? Does she believe they’re happy there? Are they with God? Whatever she says, I’m there with it. I may mentally cross my fingers, or place my own meaning on the words, but I won’t insist that she understand my doubt. Whatever she believes, I plan to embrace.
Another expert Feiler consulted rejects that course. “You’re lying to your children,” John Patrick Shanley, Pulitzer-prize winning author of the play “Doubt” says of professing a definitive belief you don’t share, “and one day they’re going to realize that you were a hypocrite.” Until now, I’ve shared that view. I don’t want my kids to wake up at ten, or fifteen, or fifty, and realize that I lied to them! That would be awful! What would they think of me? I can’t help but notice, as I think that through, that there’s an awful lot of “I” and “me” in those worries, and not a whole lot of anyone else.
If I accept Rory’s view of the afterlife, will she wake up one day and realize that I was a hypocrite? I hope so. I hope, of course, that she’ll forgive me for itâ€”that she, or one of her brothers or her sister, will remember how much it meant to her as a child that whatever she’d already learned about death not be torn away from her along with everything else. I hope she’ll understand. But if all I get out of abandoning principle is is an eventual quiet ride home, I can live with that. It turns out that my deepest beliefs aren’t about what happens when we die, or even what life is all about. My deepest belief is in my love for Rory (and all of my children). If that means I let a couple of other beliefs lie, so be it. I will set aside ambiguity, I will embrace the appearance of certainty, and I will evenâ€”so help me, I’m only going to do this onceâ€”I will even stop the car.
This essay also appeared on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog.