My son insisted on seeing a dead mouse that I’d trapped in the cellar. He looked it over, but didn’t say much until evening. “Does a mouse go to mouse heaven?” he asked then.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Does a mouse go to the same heaven cats go to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do cats and mice go to the same heaven we go to?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I get there.”
“Can you do that? Let me know when you get there?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll try real hard.”
My wife said, “In heaven, people don’t communicate by talking. They communicate by thought. I read that somewhere.”
He said, “What about communicating with someone on Earth? If Daddy doesn’t talk, how will I hear him?”
“I don’t know. If Daddy gets there first, he can let us know.”
“Will you get there first, Dad?”
I pretended I was preoccupied with washing the dishes. “I don’t know.”
“If you get there first, will you let us know?”
“Yes, I’ll try real hard to let you know.”
My wife took him into the bathroom and gave him his bath. He continued to interrogate her. Suddenly she bolted from the bathroom. As she passed me, she whispered, “I can’t take it anymore.”
When he emerged from the bathroom, I explained that it was difficult to answer questions about heaven, because we knew about it only from books written by people who said they died for a few minutes, went to heaven for awhile, and then had to come back because they were still alive.
“How did these people know they were in heaven?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling devoid of answers. “Maybe there was a sign there that said heaven on it.”
He said, “Dad, how do you spell heaven?”
What was I thinking then when I told him this stuff about heaven? At his age, was it important to give him a stock answer, the traditional viewpoint, instead of “I haven’t got a clue?” I wish sometimes I hadn’t mentioned heaven. I guess I was telling him what I wanted to believe instead of saying I didn’t know what was after death, if anything.
My wife and I had both been impressed with the book Many Lives, Many Masters, a reincarnation case study by Dr. Brian Weiss. When sometime later she mentioned reincarnation to the boy, he said, “When I come back to Earth after I die, I hope I don’t come back as a girl.” I thought maybe he believed girls had it tougher than boys.
I don’t remember asking a lot of questions when I was eight or nine, certainly not the questions the boy asked as he matured. I was glad he asked questions but, when tired and brain-dead, I often wished he’d just accept an answer of “I don’t know.” He could repeat the same question fifty times until he received a satisfactory answer.
It was winter when he and I were driving to a local mountain to ski and the car radio reported a drug-related arrest in Boston. He said, “Dad, what’s heroin?” I explained. “Why do people use drugs?” More questions, more explanations. I said someday a kid in his school would offer to give him, or sell him, some drugs. He said, “If anyone tries to give me drugs, I’m going to pretend I don’t hear them and keep on walking. If they follow me and keep on trying, I’ll walk right into a teacher’s room.”
After a Colorado vacation in July that summer, I took a four-week leave of absence from my job as a technical writer to help the boy build a tree house. While we were nailing down the tree house floor, he said, “Do you have to be married to have a baby?”
I said, “No, but it’s a good idea to be married.”
I knew he’d asked the question because, on the Colorado trip, we’d visited a home with an unmarried teenager and her baby. He began asking more questions that required some knowledge of sex. So here it was – time for the dreaded sex talk. I put down my tools and asked him, “What do you already know about sex?”
“Brian just said we were like the animals, but I didn’t understand it.”
So we talked. Soon he lost interest, and we worked on the tree house again.
Near the end of that summer, the boy asked for the hundredth time if he could have a dog. His argument for having a dog was that, as an only child, he deserved to have a companion. He said having a dog to sleep on his bed at night would make him feel safer. I thought he presented an interesting strategy, and my wife didn’t want to forbid a dog as her parents had when she was a child. Worn down perhaps by his persistence, she finally obliged him with a Cairn Terrier puppy that he named Maggie. One of her co-workers raised this breed and periodically brought her dogs to the nursing home where my wife worked as an occupational therapist.
Maggie barked at every unfamiliar sound, bumped our shins with her head if she wanted us to play, and seemed perplexed when the ice cube she pushed around the floor slowly disappeared. She was a small dog that liked to curl up in the boy’s lap.
As a child, I had not had a dog because the house was full of cats, the preference of my mother and sisters. I had not had a dog until I was thirty, and then only because my first wife tricked me into taking a stray beagle that was supposed to be temporary until she could transport it to a dog-rescue friend. But in our apartment, the dog had taken to sleeping on my feet as I banged away at the typewriter and blinked at me with soulful brown eyes every time I rose for a break. As I spent time walking him in our neighborhood, he and I had formed a bond.
Anyway, I was happy the boy loved his dog and asked no more questions about sex. His interest in sex that summer had caught me off guard, and I hoped my explanation in the tree house was sufficient for his age. What puzzles me still is why he was thinking about sex while we were building a tree house. Wasn’t the child supposed to be thinking about hammer and nail? I rarely knew which of life’s puzzles he was contemplating at any particular time, only that I was glad I was there to hear his question.
I see now that taking those unpaid weeks off from work for tree house construction was infinitely more important than the lost income. This exclusive time together gave me a chance to be near his heart and understand that the time we spend with one another in this lifetime will never come again—regardless of future lifetimes.
Photo: Getty Images