Decay

T asked what the word god meant the other day. Talk about feeling unprepared.

“Some people believe that there is a higher being who looks over humans. The higher being is god.” Ugh, a four year old can’t comprehend that. But it was all I had. The conversation meandered until it somehow reached death.

Eventually I asked, “What do you think happens after you die?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “I will decay.”

In the wise words of the Dead Milkmen, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!

When we were at my folk’s this summer T and my Dad watched some show on PBS Kids. That night T woke with nightmares about Decay. I assumed Decay was a bad guy on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something. Nope. The show they watched was about science. There was a jack-o-lantern in a classroom and after a period of time they showed it all collapsed and decaying. Unbeknownst to my father T was basically scarred for life by the rotting pumpkin. Little man talks about decay all the time now. The nightmares have also continued.

Cut to bedtime last night. Z was on campus at a lecture given by Tony Kushner (according to Z it was awesome) so I put both boys down. At first everything was normal with T. I got him ice water. We read a book. He turned off the light. I tucked him in and snuggled beside him. I started to sing I’ll Fly Away.

“Some bright morning when this life is over I will fly away” Didn’t get much further than that when T burst into tears. “I don’t want to die!” he choked out. “Stop singing that song!”

We’ve been singing that to him since he was born, it is one of his favorites. I didn’t realize he’d been paying attention to the words. Hastily I started singing Wagon Wheel instead. But the tears continued. This wasn’t T trying to get out of going to bed. He was terrified. “Mama, cuddle me really tightly! I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be alone. I’ll miss Daddy. Daddy is my best friend. Where is Daddy? I need Daddy?”

“Oh baby, Daddy is at work. He’ll be home later.”

“Call him. Call him and tell him to come home. I need him.”

“Baby, when he gets home he will come in and hug you. I promise you. Right now I am with you. What is going on? Why do you think you are going to die?”

“I am going to die! And I don’t want to! I don’t want to be alone! I want to be with Daddy and Mommy and Charlie! I don’t want to die!”

“Baby, baby, baby. You are not going to be alone. You are not. Do you know what I believe? I believe there is something inside us that makes us who we are. Our soul. And our soul never dies. If it loves other people it will always be with those other people. You and Daddy and Mommy and Charlie will always always be together. We love each other that much. And I don’t think you are going to die anytime soon. I think you will live to be a very old man.”

“Mama, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to decay!”

“People believe so many different things about what happens when you die. Some people believe that you are reincarnated. That means that you are born again after you die. Some people believe in heaven, which is a place you go forever with the people you love. Some people believe that nothing happens. You get to decide what you believe.”

“I want to be born after I die.”

He cried for a long time. I held him tight and tried to hide my own tears from him, tried to make him feel safe. I asked him why he was so worried about death, but he couldn’t explain it. Finally, finally he settled.

I, on the other hand, was badly shaken. What. The. Fuck? I felt sick to my stomach. His distress was so palpable, so overwhelming. How do you help a kid who is scared to die? Did I tell him the right things? Did I make it worse? I don’t want to lie to him. I can’t bring myself to tell him he won’t die. Death is the only thing I am sure of when it comes to his life. That and he will be loved by his family.

These are the moments that scare me the most when it comes to parenting. More than when he is sick or hurt. What is the right way to help your child navigate complex emotional problems faced by every member of humanity? As an agnostic how do I explain god? As someone just as frightened of death as he is how do I ease the burden that we all carry- that every one of us will die? How do I talk about an afterlife when my beliefs are shaky at best?

This child I love so fiercely, my boy who is already an overthinker, who is filled with fear, who is anxious, who is terrified of nighttime, how do I help him? It seems like it should be easy, he and I are so alike. So far I can feel his pain perfectly. His fear slips into my heart where it grabs the hand of my own terror. I didn’t think I had room for more anxiety inside me, but he has proven me wrong. I will always be able to absorb his. But what good does that do? I want to help him, not just understand him.

When Z came home I explained what happened. Z had tears in his eyes. T hadn’t brought up death to him, the whole thing seemed out of left field. Z did go up to T’s room and hug his sweaty little sleeping body. T slept through the night and well past his usual wake up time. Z and I both went in to wake him. C joined us and there was a family pileup in T’s single bed.

He didn’t bring up death this morning. At school I asked his teacher and he hasn’t been talking about it there. Who knows? Maybe he’ll only be scared at night time. That’s how it was for me when I was his age. Maybe it will pass for a while. Maybe long enough for me to take a philosophy class on death and dying so I’ll be better equipped to help him. I’m kidding. Kind of.

serious face

Photos by Ellie Leonardsmith

Let’s end this one on a happy note. Z’s sister, our sister-in-law, and their daughter visited this weekend. Ellie is an amazing photographer and she took some family shots. If you are reading this in an RSS feed you might actually want to pop over to the blog itself if you are interested in seeing the new header picture. This was our “serious face” one. I really almost chose it for the header….

leonardsmiths

The lovely Aunt Dr. Kelsey and Aunt Ellie along with Graylyn.

cousins

Cousins! So many blue eyes!

happy k z

This man. He makes me so happy.

There will be more photos from the shoot on the next several posts. Ellie is amazing. If you are in the Twin Cities area and need a photographer check her out.

Our Version of Church

After a family trip to the grocery store late this morning we drove by a church on the way home. To be honest, we drove by a bunch of churches. But as we drove by this one in particular I said to Z, “You know how every couple of years you talk about wanting to go to church for the sense of community?” Z, “Yeah.” Me, “Well, last night is my version of church.” Z, “Huh. Yeah. Yes. Yes it is.”

Last night was special because we celebrated Z’s 40th birthday. And it was special because it wasn’t special at all.

First the birthday stuff. Z is flying off to Japan for a month next Sunday. On his real 40th birthday he will be in Kyoto where he and the class he’ll be co-teaching will go to a fish market and then back to a kitchen to learn how to make sushi. Pretty fucking sweet.

So I decided to surprise him with a birthday not on his birthday. He had a quick overnight work trip to NYC on Friday. Our friends came over early on Saturday morning to watch the boys as I did party prep. They decorated the backyard with cheesy 40s and crepe paper and a Star Wars banner that I’d bought. And when he pulled into the driveway we shouted, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” He was surprised and I was tickled pink. I suck at secrets and wanted to tell him all week. We did presents and I broke the news that he’d have to help out as the party prep continued. He was a total sport about it.

backyard pre party

Waiting for the party to start.

Now for the not special stuff. As it was closing in on party time Z said, “We’d probably be doing this exact thing even if we weren’t celebrating my birthday.” It’s what we do in Syracuse while the weather is nice. We have people over, we cook out, we drink, we laugh, the kids run around, we drink a little more. We’ve found our people. Our kids have friends that they will grow up with. This community is a big part of why we want to stay here. And I can’t express how grateful we both are.

z 40 cake

Most weekends I don’t make a cake. And it was a serendipitous coincidence that the party fell on Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You).

z cookies

When I found the Z cookie cutter years ago I couldn’t believe it. They make a cookie cutter of my husband? How cool is that?

blowing out the candles

Blowing out the candles with the kiddos. The paper hat…our first summer here the nutjob decided he’d make a paper hat and wear it around the yard. It drove me crazy. He made me one last summer and I humored him by wearing it a bit. I swallowed my dislike and make him a special one for his big birthday.

So yes, our church rocks. The food is pretty great, we get to drink, the kids can make as much noise as they want, and it is right out our back door.

birthday hat

Happy 40th, Baby. I sure do love you.

Tackling A Hard Topic and Happy Birthday T!

Last week a friend who lives around the corner emailed to let us know her family’s dog quite suddenly became gravely ill and was being euthanized that evening. T knows the dog pretty well and my friend kindly thought it would be good to let us know so we could explain to him what was happening.

I had no idea what to say to him. What is the “right” thing? What can his three year old brain process? What do I want to teach him about death? What the hell do I believe about death myself? Or religion, because the two are so intertwined?

Z and I both happen to be baptized Presbyterian, but neither of us have actively practiced religion from about the age of 9 or so on. We feel culturally Christian, and we dig the secular traditions surrounding the celebration of Christmas and Easter. We don’t personally believe that Jesus was the son of God, but we think he was an awesome dude. I mean, let’s be real. He was a loving, long haired, dirty, communist hippie which totally makes him our kind of guy.

I also don’t think I’m a straight up atheist. The idea that there is nothing out there might be logical, but I’m a feelings gal and no matter what my brain says my heart thinks there is something more. I believe we have souls and I don’t think those souls die when we do. I can’t imagine telling my children that if I die while they are young that I won’t still exist on some level to love them and watch over them somehow. My love for them is so strong I do believe it will survive my death. If that is delusional, so be it. It helps me sleep at night. Because as soon as you become a parent mortality becomes stunningly real, your love for your child is so staggering and terrifying you are instantly stripped of the invincibility of your youth.

I guess I’d label myself agnostic. I believe in something, I just don’t know what. Not the paternalistic God of our society, not necessarily a god at all. Just…something, something more.

Organized religion is problematic for me. So much hate is justified by invoking God’s name. So many of the tenets of religious texts are cherry picked to support whatever prejudices a person has developed, while others are discarded because they are inconvenient. So much war has been waged in the name of God, so much hate. I understand there are compelling reasons to belong to a religious organization-the community, a value system that lines up with your own. But for the most part it isn’t for me. Nor is atheism. I’m glad that atheists are feeling more comfortable about speaking out. But a lot of their rhetoric is as dogmatic as that of evangelists and zelots, the whole if-you-had-any-brains-at-all-you’d-believe-exactly-what-I-do jazz. The mean spirited dismissal of people of faith completely turns me off. I guess besides being agnostic I think people should have the freedom to believe whatever helps get them through this life and the courtesy not to be bullied for their beliefs. I also think they shouldn’t use their beliefs to bully others. And that in our multicultural society government and religion should have nothing to do with each other, I firmly believe that the founding fathers would completely agree with me with that one. Ok, climbing off my soapbox now.

So how to approach this charged topic with T? I told him that his doggy friend got very sick and died. I said that means she won’t live around the corner from our house anymore, she is gone and we won’t get to see her again. The place that she went is doggy heaven, and doggy heaven is awesome. She gets to run around and have tons of fun and be not sick at all and she gets to look down and see what we are all doing back here on earth. I said that we will all miss her very much and it was ok to feel sad about not getting to see her again. It’s ok to be sad for a really long time.

Little man is three. In fact, today is his birthday. We think he is wonderful and brilliant and perfect just like every parent is supposed to. But I’m not sure how much of my little speech he understood. It’s the beginning of a conversation that will go on for years. I’m so sorry about the illness and death of our friend’s much loved dog, but I appreciate the reminder to think about how to frame this discussion for our kids. I want to approach this subject thoughtfully for them. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will tell them what I believe, but I will explain that I want them to believe whatever feels right in their hearts and minds. I honestly don’t care if my kids are christian, or atheist, or jewish, or muslim, or buddhist. It’s much more important to me that they are kind, ethical, giving humans who treat others with care. I’m a big fan of the golden rule, and that is how I hope to teach them to live.

One of my favorite people in the world is a person of faith. I got to see him during our big trip down south and we had the opportunity to get to talk for a couple of hours. Religion came up and I said to him that it seemed to me that even though he was religious and I emphatically was not that our values and approaches to child rearing were remarkably similar. And that feels like an important thing to remember.

***Sincere Disclaimer***
If you are religious, if you are atheist, if you aren’t sure what you are, I hope I haven’t offended you. Just because we don’t believe the same stuff doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or like you or in a lot of cases love you or your beliefs.

Now how about some birthday pictures? We had a small party for him yesterday afternoon and it was so much fun! Today is his actual birthday. He got presents, we are smoking pork, and this afternoon we are getting some visitors that he adores. He is one lucky duck.

Some fondant R2D2s for the cupcakes.

I just couldn’t get behind using all that black food dye. Makes the icing bitter and dyes your poop black. So I left the Brown Sugar Buttercream as is. A friend dubbed it “Albino Darth”. 

He blew out all the candles! 

Darth Vader Piñata!

Light saber battle! 

His Grandmom and Granddad got him this amazing road grader. It is by far his favorite present.