This week, in fond memory and admiration, I find my inspiration for Out-Numbered in the strong spirit of Jordan I. Lane, affectionately known to my girls as PJ.
Six year old: “Daddy?”
Me: “Yes baby.”
Six year old: “Do people go to heaven when they die?”
Me: “I think they go to some place nice.”
Six year old: “Do they go to heaven?”
Me: “I’m not sure if they go to heaven but it’s definitely a place that’s nice.”
Six year old: “When people die, can they talk to other people who are dead?”
Me: “I don’t see why not?”
Six year old: “Is PJ going to talk to everybody in heaven?”
Me: “Sure. He’s probably going to talk to a lot of people. Anybody that will listen, I’m sure.”
Six year old: “If my best friend and I die at the same time, can we talk to each other in heaven?”
Me: “That would be terrible sweetheart.”
Six year old: “Whatever. Will we be able to talk to each other?”
Me: “I suppose so. Knock on wood though.”
Six year old: “What does that mean?”
Me: “You’re supposed to knock on wood when someone says something bad that you don’t want to happen.”
Six year old: “Why do you have to knock on wood?”
Me: “Never mind.”
Six year old: “If I die, I’m going to be really chatty up in heaven. I hope all of my friends die with me so we are all there together.”
Me: “That sounds like fun…”
Death is one of those things that you don’t plan on talking about with your kids. It’s not that you want to avoid talking about it. It’s just that you kind of hope to avoid death in general. It’s kind of not fun. Sometimes you try to throw a little life lesson in there along the way. Like when you win one of those Beta fish at the local carnival. The only thing that those miserable fish are good for is teaching your kids a little mini lesson about death. It’s pretty much a lock for heartbreak most of the time. The kid is so happy when they bring that fish home. Kids don’t really think about the circumstances. Like the tiny little bowl it comes in or the freezing cold water with no filter or heater or the lack of oxygen or the insufferable loneliness the fish must feel hovering in that sad sack of a studio fish apartment. You get the point. It’s inevitable that the thing will die within a few days. So you spend this time prepping the kid for the death experience, in the hope that it will come in handy down the road. It goes something like this:
Kid: “I love my new fish.”
Parent: “Great. He loves you too.”
Kid: “I hope he lives forever.”
Parent: “Nothing lives forever sugar plumb.”
Kid: “My fish will.”
Parent: “I wish that were the case but it’s not possible.”
Kid: “I think it is.”
Kid: “Daddy, Daddy!”
Parent: “What is it pumpkin?”
Kid: “I think my fish is dead.”
Parent: “I think you’re right baby. I’m sorry. You see, it’s…”
Kid: “Can we get a new one?”
Kid: “I want to flush it down the toilet.”
Parent: “Ok. Get your mother.”
You see, I always thought it was going to be a heart wrenching conversation. Maybe we’d be sitting on a rock by a lake somewhere. Kind of like my “On Golden Pond” moment. I’d touch my daughter’s shoulder and tell her about the Loons. We’d both cry and then hug. Not going to happen. Kids, like adults have their own ways of dealing with things. Death is one of them. I feel kind of inadequate talking about it with my kids. I think it’s because as a parent you’re supposed to have answers for your kids. But death is not like math or science homework. It’s about sadness and mortality. It’s about suddenness and faith. It’s about God and truth. It’s easy to tell them “Grandpa was sick” or “Grandpa went to sleep and he’s not going to wake up.” But those answers aren’t good enough. Little kids can be very literal. They don’t think like we do. The last thing we want to do is have our kids develop acute phobias of sleep and sickness. We need to be honest with them. We need to be open and truthful. It’s totally ok to not have all the answers to all of their questions. Kids are perceptive by nature. They can sense when you’re pulling the wool over their eyes. It’s ok to talk to them about faith. As long as we encourage openness and let them know that it’s ok to feel different things, they’ll feel comfortable and secure.
I remember when my oldest daughter was four years old. She asked me if we could get a pet dog. I said that we couldn’t because Mommy is allergic to dogs. She then asked, “If Mommy DIES, can we get a dog?” I said, “I suppose we could but hopefully we’ll have to wait a little while.” Kids are living in the moment most of the time but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand. They just have their own way of processing things. Not every emotion will be textbook.
This past week my wife’s Grandpa passed away. When we told our oldest daughter the news, she didn’t seem very upset. We asked her if she was sad that PJ died. She said, “I’m not sad.” We asked her why? She said, “We still have Nana.” We told her that was very true and a good way to look at things. She went on to tell us that she didn’t want to care that PJ died. When we asked her why she didn’t want to care, she said, “If I don’t care, then I won’t be sad. So I don’t want to care.” We told her that it’s ok to be sad and that she can care if she wants to. There’s no reason to hide the way she feels.
Kids are so freaking smart it KILLS me. Ok, not a great choice of words but it’s true. There is so much we can learn from our children even in the most troubling situations. There is no right way to act for a child. That’s the beauty and the gut twisting experience of being a parent.
This week was tough for my wife and her family. We all miss PJ. One of the things that made it bearable for us in our time of loss was the sights and sounds of all the kids running around the house. Even in death there is always life. It’s times like these that we should cherish the spontaneous dialogue we have with our children. If we listen to what they have to say, we just might find the answers that we were so desperately hoping to provide for them.
Surrounded by the memories of a loved one and my family, this time I was truly Out-Numbered.