When Alice was 18-months-old, I still had this silly habit of underestimating her. One awful, rainy morning, we had to put one of our three cats, Tony, to sleep. I figured I'd deal with my own grief of the situation for a few days and then break the news to her. That night, we were not home from her daycare for 10 minutes when she shifted in her booster seat, took a look around, and flat out asked, "Where's Tony?"
Keep in mind that Tony looked almost identical to one of our other cats, his brother, Bruce. Completely shocked, I was immediately on the spot.
"He was very old and he was very, very sick, I mean, much more sick then you or anyone you've ever known has been and basically he was old, just old and there was nothing we could do so he actually died and it means he won't be coming back ever but we will always have the memories of him and it's okay to feel sad but he would want us to remember him in a happy way..."
She happily resumed throwing black beans from her tray.
When my parents' dog, Ruby, died a year ago, she launched a full scale investigation. With notepad and pen in hand she interviewed my dad, who in her mind had become a person of interest in the case.
"Papa, you took Ruby to the vet, right? When she was sick? So you were the last one to see her alive? Is that right? What day was that?"
"Can I seek counsel?" he finally pleaded after an hour under the lights.
Last week our beloved Freddy, a ginger tom cat rescued 10 years ago from the streets of Brooklyn, passed away. With big cheeks and an even bigger personality, he was pretty much the honorary family dog.
Alice took his death hard.
"Freddy died," I overheard her solemnly explain to our neighbors. "He was my daddy's best friend."
With each passing year, her questions about death get more pointed. And I get more nervous.
I want to be direct and give the facts, but the truth is I don't have all the facts in this case. I want to leave space for her to form her own ideas but I don't want her to feel lost, like a dandelion seed that was perfectly happy on its innocent stalk but has suddenly been blown to smithereens.
I try to keep it general: "Pets don't get to stay with us forever. We have to just be thankful for the time we had them. We still have all the memories we shared with them."
The hardest part is the "never coming back" part. Because it leads to the, "so where did he go?" part.
I don't remember exactly when I was told about heaven as a kid, but I do recall many nights in bed worrying about it and then, as a way to ease that worry, mentally set-dressing the place with all my favorite delights. There'd be Nancy Drew books, buttery popcorn and Jack Wagner in my heaven, oh yes indeed.
Sometimes when I'd whine about a sibling snatching the last piece of cake, pizza, what have you, my parents would quiet me with this: "Well, Maggie, you'll have a higher place in heaven, okay?"
My path to martyrdom began early.
I don't want to sideline Alice's important journey of spiritual discovery with an absolute and definitive destination. That would be like stacking the Candyland deck with the cinnamon roll card right on top and then jumping ahead to just ten spaces before Candy Castle—when maybe her idea of afterlife will be more like the Gingerbread House, or, God help me (and her teeth), Gummy Hills. I mean, who knows, maybe she'll be on a constant search through Lollypop Woods.
This past week we have talked about Freddy a lot. The girls love hearing stories about him and looking at pictures of him. I openly ask Mr. R how he's doing so Alice knows she's not alone in her grief.
As we were driving home from school on Friday, out of the blue Alice asked: "Mama, what happens to your heart when you die?"
"Your heart?" I stalled.
"Does it stop beating?"
Direct and honest. Just the facts, mom.
"Yes. It stops beating."
Full stop. I gripped the steering wheel in the silence that followed, fulling expecting a black licorice hole to suck up the entire car on the spot. But Alice just nodded her head with grace and pressed onward:
"Okay. It stops beating. But the love that was in it—where does it go?"
My breath hitched and tears threatened to flow, but I had to make my voice at least as steady as hers.
"The love never dies," I said with fierce certainty. "The love lasts forever."