We talk pretty matter-of-factly around here about the big issues. When the kids ask questions–you know, the BIG questions–what we usually do is give them a short, honest answer (“How does a baby comes out of a mommy’s belly?” “Well, usually a baby comes out [this way] but sometimes the baby has to come out [this way].”), and let the girls lead the way from there. Sometimes all they want is that short answer (which is why they know that babies come from a sperm and an egg, but thank the dear Lord in heaven that’s it, because it was 3 o’clock when the subject came up and somebody wanted a snack. ALL HAIL SNACK TIME). Sometimes, like when they ask about death, and dying, and what happens after death, the girls get curious, and the questions keep coming, and again, we have to answer as matter-of-factly as we can. And I will tell you this: there is nothing like teaching a three-year-old what you believe to make you hope for darned sure that you believe it yourself. And there is nothing scarier, yet weirdly more reassuring, than answering your child simply about matters of faith. Kids know how to see through the bs. So when you tell your child that after a person dies, his soul goes to heaven, and lives with God, and that after we all die, we’ll all get to be with each other again forever…well, don’t mince your words. Your kid is listening. And when your child asks the questions, you better have your answers. Because your answers, as you know, become her knowledge.
About a month or so ago, I had a dream about my dad. It’d been probably about two years since I’d had a dream with him in it, and, like the others, I haven’t been able to shake it. Mainly because I kind of don’t want to. A month ago, my world was all upside down and topsy-turvy. We had packing to do, but were still wondering if this house was the right choice for us. The book was going out on submission again, and I was a distracted, vaguely depressed wreck, waiting for news, and too distracted and busy to concentrate on any other writing. My brain was a constant struggle of “what if?” “what next?” “should we have?” and “how’s it going to turn out?”, and as I told a friend, I haven’t felt this anxious and out of control since my senior year of college, when I was juggling way too many credits, a couple of jobs, an internship, and was desperately, desperately, trying to find a job in my field because I had no idea what was going to happen after I crossed that stage at graduation. You get the idea. They’re small struggles, really, but they’re my struggles.
And then Dad was there, showing up in the middle of the night in a dream. As always, I was scared and sad and feeling helpless when I saw him, because, as always, when he appeared there–this was the first dream where he walked toward me instead of me finding him–I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t open my mouth to talk to him, and I kept trying, and my dream self was terrified that if I didn’t talk to him he would disappear. And after what felt like ages, I was able to do it. I opened my mouth: “Hi. Dad, hi!” And then, because it’s the first thing I always say to him, or want to say to him, I asked him: “Are you happy?” (Because what I want to say is, “I wish you were here and I hate that you’re gone and where you are is unfamiliar and please can you tell me are you happy?“) And my dad broke into a huge grin, with a mouthful of perfect, straight, even, white teeth, and said yes. He said yes. He looked like a shinier, healthier, younger version of himself. Clear skin–those teeth–strong, in a white t-shirt. And he gave me a hug (that old bear hug!) and followed me down my dream hallway into a kitchen that looked exactly like the kitchen in our new house, except that the countertops were this horrendous, ugly, 70s green, which is kind of how I feel about the (granite, relatively new, but…still green) countertops in our new home. And my dad walked around to the opposite side of the kitchen island, planted his hands on either side, and talked. We talked, and talked, and the whole time my dream self kept telling me to remember this, remember this, it’s going to disappear in an instant and this is all that you have so don’t let go of it. Slow it down and take it all in, dream self insisted, and remember it.
And of course I forgot every single thing we said. But what I do remember, what I cannot forget–besides that smile, of course–was my dad’s demeanor. He was just so pleased. Pleased. It’s the only word I can think to describe it. Talking with me, standing in that terrible kitchen, hanging out. He was so pleased. Proud, and happy, and satisfied. He was content.
Every anniversary of his death marks the beginning of another year that dad is missing something. The book. Another grandchild learning to walk. The house. And this year, this is a big year. My brother is getting married. Married. That stings, that, Dad not being here for him, beside my mom, with us. Such joy to be felt, but…as Paul said, it’d be kind of nice to have him around. I totally realize that it’s not Dad that’s missing out on all this, it’s us missing Dad, but the fact that all of this missing doesn’t get any easier just reinforces the hard fact that every April 16, another year gets ticked off the calendar.
I came downstairs that morning anxious to tell David about that dream. We were rushing to get Saoirse to school (always, always, because seriously, who are these people who have all this extra time in the mornings?), and I only had enough time to tell him bits and pieces. SK was asking for details, and I told her I’d fill her in on the way to school.
And so we drove, the two of us, and as soon as we were buckled in, Saoirse asked me to tell her about my dream. She listened, as intently as kids will do when you don’t expect them to (never underestimate the attention span of a child, ever. They miss nothing). And after I was finished–I may have gotten a little teary–Saoirse asked me, “Do you miss him? Do you miss your dad?” And I told her yes, I miss him a lot, and wiped my eyes a little.
“Why?” she asked. What follows is kind, yes, but she wasn’t reassuring me. She was just…matter of fact, as she’d learned to be. As we’d taught her. “Why? You’re going to see him again.”
We learn that sometimes children only need the simple answers. They’ll take it from there. What we don’t realize–until they teach us, that is–is that the simple answers are usually the best ones for any of us. We’ll see him again. Yes, of course.
But for now, we have to get through another year.