“It’s no secret / That the both of us are running out of time.” —Adele
It started slowly. At first, I thought we had a handle on it.
My four-year-old daughter, Zoe, asked my husband what happens when we die. Precipitated by the death of Chris’s grandfather and a visit to the gravesite, Zoe had some choice words about death, whispering in a terrified voice that she didn’t want to be “buried underneath all the dirt, with all the dirt in her mouth.”
“Honey,” I said, laughing when Chris reported this to me later that night, “neither do I.”
But then it got more difficult. Zoe had questions about how we get to heaven (“Where is it?”) and Chris had answers that were, if age-appropriate, not entirely satisfying for me as an adult (“We fly to heaven”) and Zoe (“How do we fly if we don’t have wings?” Chris: “Jesus will take us there”). They had a brief conversation about faith, and how belief in Jesus was the prerequisite for our eventual journey to heaven.
Upon interrogation, Chris revealed that he may also have alluded to us having wings.
“Like actual feathers?” I said in disbelief.
“I guess. I mean, that’s what wings are,”
“We don’t know if we’ll have wings,” I laughingly admonished Chris, pushing his shoulder playfully with my hand. We sat in bed, shoulder to shoulder. My heart, in spite of the lightness of our banter, felt heavy with the awareness that we carried a child’s small heart in our hands. What we taught her would likely stick.
A few days later, in the car, Zoe asked again about death and how to avoid dying. My mother heart syncopated; I adjusted my rearview mirror to see her sweet chubby legs dangling down across the car seat. I tried not to allow my voice to waver as I answered her first sincere question:
“Are we all going to die?”
“Yes, honey, we’re all going to die.” I spoke carefully.
“And I’m going to get spots on my hands?” Zoe asked, worry flashing across her face, tense baby lines elongated. She was looking at her chubby hands with nary a line in sight—still as darling and soft as the first time they were pressed against my neck.
“We all get spots on our hands like your Grandmemere,” I told her. “But it will be a long time for you.”
“A looong time,” I reiterated, watching her face continue to express concern. I imagined Zoe, growing older—becoming a harried mother, a strong and wearied grandmother. I envisioned myself at her side years from now, hands lined and worn as well. Would we have that long?
Our car rushed down the highway; we carried the heaviness of our mutual, tiny interlocking existence, the burden of minimal knowledge, young and old, of watching the clock tick-tocking by and wondering when the red light would glare.
I started to project what might be brimming from her continued probing: we as parents were failing her, we didn’t know enough about death, and we certainly didn’t know how to alleviate the existential angst of a child who still used Crayola crayons made especially for small hands. I spoke to her about Jesus and about her heart’s acceptance of him, and the importance of this in reference to our death.
But just as soon as her interest had developed, it had also waned, and I was left holding what felt like the points of a tract: we accept Jesus, we know Jesus, we follow him, and we die and go to heaven. I repeated this twice to her, as if this was a ticket we had bought for entrance to some concert, those four instructions included. Did she want to pray about those four things? I urged.
A small nod.
We prayed a short prayer, in which I felt guilty and a little confused. Was this her conversion? Had I simplified something too big for her?
But Zoe didn’t seem too concerned. She reverted to questions about squirrels and hedgehogs. And that was that.
I feel like I’m still using thick Crayolas right now—still gripping the spiritual crayons made for little fingers. I feel as if I know about as much as Zoe, cynically appraising the idea that we’ll get wings, praying that it’ll be that simple, that we’ll “all be together” as Chris and I told her—that Jesus will make it all right because we belong to him. And yet, my faith is sometimes a wet feather, unable to lift this mortal body upward.
This past week I sat in my neighbor’s house over a mug of coffee, and tears fell for my first college English professor, who recently passed—who taught me what little I know of Dante’s circles and unintelligible Early English from Beowulf.
Sitting at my neighbor’s table, my coffee muddy and smeared, I realized, more selfishly, that I was one step closer to dying because this much-beloved man had died, and that this thought was more prescient than his death itself. I’m going to die, I thought selfishly, and then, Zoe is going to die. And then, that familiar pang, fear. That familiar dark wondering at this place we’ve found ourselves in, this brief diamond of an existence on a page that has been left mostly blank, with a few crayoned instructions.
The truth is, I’m struggling with how to explain to my daughter who Jesus is and how death factors into all of it. I’m scared that she won’t understand the words I am saying, or that she will sense my reticence to explain. Some days I have asked my husband to talk to her about Jesus because I don’t have the words. Then again, words are not always enough.
I’m not sure in what mysterious ways God turns hearts toward him, but I know it involves more than a four-step verbal procedure and a fear of death. I want my daughter, ultimately, to know the deep love of God, and from that wellspring draw the water that will sustain her. I want her to close the song of her life, as it commits to the end coda, the movement drawing to a close, knowing his love.
In the car, Zoe rests in the car seat, her mouth open and slack. Several days a week she falls asleep in the sunshine of the day, perceiving that she can take respite because someone else is charting the course. In a similar way, because life, death, and salvation aren’t mine to own—though they are mine to grapple with—I can know someone else is charting the course.
I turn the blinker signal on, and we veer into the next lane, Zoe’s sleepy head nodding to the movement of the car as we find our way home.