This morning Thaila woke up late, bounded into the living room in her blue nightgown and curled up on my lap. I was anticipating the usual morning banter: I’m hungry/I had a dream about Bubbles and Buttercup/Look, Emily peed on the floor. But instead:
“You know what M says about what happens after you die?”
A little different.
“She says when you or a cat or anyone dies that you go to heaven and you get to fly in the sky and eat candy! And then maybe see the pets that were dead, then you have a drink. And then you are alive again!”
“Um…wow, that’s what she told you?”
Lately Thalia has been asking more questions about death which I suppose is a result of ordinary four year-old curiosity, a playgroup friend who’s bringing it up, or maybe some dark episode of The Wonder Pets that I’m not quite familiar with.
(The baby turtle/she has a cerebral hematoooooma/this is sewious/oh shoot, she died.)
I have been all prepared to use the “some people believe X and some believe Y and one day you can believe what you want” response, but admittedly, I was caught a little off guard.
I imagined Nate, still asleep in the next room–Nate the raging, crazy Christopher Hitchens-loving, lapsed Mormon turned fist-shaking Atheist, and what he would have to say about Thalia’s conversation with her sitter. No doubt it would have incorporated the terms “fairy tale” and “snake oil.”
“Well, heaven is just a story, sweetie,” I said. “Some people believe it and some people don’t.”
“No it’s not! M told me that Desdemona went to cat heaven.”
“Well, kind of how you know [can't say Santa/can't say tooth fairy/ looking for an analogy here] …dragons are just a story?”
“No they’re not.”
Before I debated that point I had to stop myself and ask, why am I okay letting her think that Santa is real but not heaven? Why is the mythology of some winged fairy who sneaks in in the night and steals your teeth somehow more benign than the mythology of winged angels who serve you candy and drinks above the clouds? And what the heck do I tell her when she asks me what I think is true?
Then I realized that part of this issue is that I’ve never been able to entirely articulate what I believe.
I’m not a by-the-book Jew. (Or a by-the-Book Jew?) I’ve been able to float by for years now in the world of non-practicing Jews, spiritual to some degree but not religious, more bound to Judaism by the culture and celebratory traditions and our love of Chinese food and bad puns, than any sort of dogma or religious tenets. It’s been a fine and dandy sort of vague arrangement between me and my religion that’s suited me well for some time — including the part where I alternate between believing in some sort of higher power or afterlife or nothing quite so concrete, depending on the day.
But I’m getting to where I’m going to have to figure it all out a little better. Or at least figure out a way to talk about it. Because I’ve got a pair of curious kids who are not too far away from wanting to know what happens to cats and people when they die and I would like them to consider an option beyond “nothing” which I’d imagine is where Nate stands these days.
“So you know what I think?” I said, placing my hands on Thalia’s heart. “I think that when you die that all the love inside you and all the happiness and all the joy comes out and spreads alllll over the universe so that all the people who loved you in your life can feel a little bit of you all the time and carry it with them.”
“I like that,” she said, smiling.
“I like that too.”