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I've heard more than one cheesy song (usually in the country genre) about a parent talking to a child about heaven. Part of me didn't want to write this post because it could sound way too much like one of those songs -- cliche, predictable, contrived. A bigger part of me didn't want to post it because I don't like to use this space to voice my opinions about religion (just as I like to stay quiet here about politics). But the conversation I had with Teddy yesterday afternoon was as real as they come, so at the risk of sounding (at best) like a Chicken Soup for the Soul chapter about heaven, I'll forge ahead on this topic.
A few weeks ago when Brian and I were in the car with the kids, Brian's Grandpa Ted came up in the conversation. Teddy asked us where Grandma Ted was and Brian answered that he was in heaven. Teddy didn't ask any more questions, until yesterday.
While Brian was home facing his fear of heights to scale the roof and take down the Christmas lights, Teddy, Annabel, and I headed down Route 95 en route to Teddy's friend's birthday party. Out of no where (that I knew of), Teddy asked me, Mommy, where's heaven? Gee whiz. Couldn't I just get an easier question like, Why is the sky blue? I think I actually remember the answer to that one from my high school physics class. But Teddy headed straight for Final Jeopardy without giving me any time to warm up in an earlier round.
So I told him that heaven was up in the sky; so high up that we can't see it. (How dumb was that last part? Yikes. I needed to pick up my game.)
Our conversation continued on like this:
What do people do there?
Great question. (Pause...me trying to think of a good answer...) Whatever they want. Whatever makes them the happiest.
Can they play baseball?
What do they use for a bat? (This may have been the hardest question of them all.)
Hum, something just like a regular bat. (D+ answer at best.)
Who is in heaven?
Lots of people. Mommy's Grandma and Grandpa, Daddy's Grandpa. They are all together.
People are together in heaven?
Yep -- people get to see everyone they love in heaven and be with them forever.
Will you go to heaven one day?
Yep, if I'm a good person.
Yes, because you're such a nice person.
But not for a really really long time, right? (Ahh...I totally should have clarified this right away. I suck.)
Right, because you're really young.
Can we talk to people when they are in heaven?
Yes, but they can't talk back like a person can. That doesn't mean they can't hear you though.
Who will be my Mommy and Daddy when you are in heaven? (At this question, Teddy started to cry. Like I've never seen him do, he tried to hide his tears from me. My heart physically ached at the sight of him in my rear view mirror.)
We will always be your Mommy and Daddy even when we are in heaven. (Well, shit, now I was crying too. I adjusted the mirror so he wouldn't see.) People don't have to be here on Earth for you to talk to them or for them to be your Mommy or Daddy. (Gulp. Tears. Trying to keep a light hearted voice.) So are you excited for the birthday party?
Yep, can I have some vanilla cake?
Sure, buddy. And are you excited for your hockey game tonight?
We continued on the hockey topic until we arrived at the party.
At the time, I thought I did a great job of taking the conversation back to a lighter track; of stopping a total flood of tears from one or both of us. But now as I think back, I wonder if I ducked out of the conversation too early. Was this a big parenting opportunity that I flubbed because I got too choked up? Maybe. Crap.
If I'd have known this conversation was coming I would have done something to try to prepare for it. I probably wouldn't have read a whole book in eager preparation and even Google likely would have failed me on this one, but I definitely would have asked Brian, at the very least, what he thinks about heaven (I still don't know) and what he would tell Teddy about it. But there was no time for anything as we headed down the highway. So there I was, parenting-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. And here I am now, obsessing about all the things I could have said better.
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This is not the first time that heaven has crossed my mind in the past few months, and on several days I thought about it enough that I wanted to write on the topic. But I never really felt ready to. Yesterday, however, Teddy changed me, and I'm not only ready to write about it, but I'm bursting to.
I didn't grow up with any religion, and I never thought that I was missing anything because of it. Sure, there were times that I felt like I was the only one not going to CCD or Hebrew school (besides my sister and brother, of course), but it didn't bother me to be different that way. My parents taught us values and faith in many other ways -- for instance, through our strong family traditions and our Sunday night dinners together.
In 2009 and 2010, several tragedies hit close to home and I remember being desperate for some sort of spiritual understanding. Some explanation; some comfort. It was at this time that I started to believe in heaven, albeit, very loosely and disloyally. It was also at this time that my Mom apologized for not giving us some sort of religious upbringing. I assured her that she did not need to apologize and I meant it whole-heartedly. The year after, for various reasons, Brian and I started to attend services at the Unitarian Universalist church in town and we were excited to get the kids involved in the religious education program there.
Unitarian Universalism, however, doesn't seem to prescribe specific thinking on things like heaven, which is a lot of why I like it so much. The religion has Christian roots, but like my parents, it focuses more on values and good behaviors, and I always leave a service having learned something about how I can be a better person. All of this should be prefaced, for sure, by the caveat that our church attendance record is spotty at best, so there's a good chance I've simply missed some information that may help me in this area. Since my attendance record probably won't improve much until it's way easier to get my kids dressed and in the car, I'm going to stick with the comfort that my own beliefs on heaven have brought me. Only after I spoke with my soon-to-be-five-year-old, that is.
I'm comfortable stating my own very personal opinion on this topic because, for years, I've gathered bits and pieces of what I think about it. I've gathered those pieces from countless different places including funeral services, history books, literature, TV shows (including, yes, Lost), movies, and even science. Now, I'm writing about how these pieces fit together because I want my family, and especially my kids, to know what I think about heaven. By no means do I feel that they need to agree with me but I hope that whatever they believe gives them the same comfort that I feel.
A few weeks ago, I saw a headline in the newspaper about some scientific report that there are upwards of hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy. I didn't even click on the article to read more, mainly because I knew that I couldn't begin to comprehend concepts discussed there and because I knew that if I tried to, I'd probably just end up scared and confused. Hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy? I can't even fathom the existence of a galaxy and I can barely grasp the enormity of hundreds of billions of something. I'm sure that geniuses at NASA would scoff at this, but it seems to me like there's a whole universe full of so much that we don't yet understand and perhaps, never could understand.
The night before last Thanksgiving, Brian and I sat on our couch and bawled our eyes out -- first crying, then laughing. I ended up writing a blog post (linked HERE) that included my one and only (somewhat joking) piece of advice for young families dealing with a cancer diagnosis -- never watch the movie, We Bought a Zoo. Well, I may have to take back that advice because despite that I still hate that movie, it gave me one of the most important pieces of my understanding-of-heaven puzzle. Crazy, I know, because it's not exactly where one would expect to find a deeper understanding of the afterlife. But a key phrase in the film -- just two small words -- stuck with me ever since that tearful night and I expect they'll be with me forever.
I know I've scattered what may seem to be incredibly random puzzle pieces all over this blog post -- planets, Lost, and We Bought a Zoo?!? You are totally fair to think I've lost my mind, and maybe I have. But I don't feel that way. Instead, I feel like I've found peace with a concept that has long perplexed me.
After that talk with Teddy, I believe in heaven. I really do. I believe that somehow spirits can find their way to a place where they can be eternally happy; where they can reunite with their loved ones; where there is justice and peace. Yes, it makes me feel better to believe all of this. But that's not why I believe. I believe because in a universe (or universes?) so unfathomably big -- so undiscovered -- it could really be true. So why not believe? Really, why not.
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Today my baby girl turned two. I've never made my family coordinate outfits and pose for a picture, but today I couldn't resist.
Between burning cookies, decorating blue cupcakes, and running back and forth to the bathroom with Annabel who has decided on her own to ditch diapers, I thought about how much this day means to me. It's indescribable.
A few days ago, I asked Annabel how old she was going to be. "Twir-teen!" she exclaimed, and of course, I laughed loud and hard. Since then, she's continued to love her joke, or better yet, the response it elicits. I wonder if her joke is her way of telling me -- Don't worry Mom; you'll be here for my 13th birthday too. I think that it is. And that I will be.