Before I had children, and even when the older of our two was a baby, I swore I’d never lie to my children. Never. How could I betray their trust, set them up for disillusionment? I would be honest, I promised. At all times. In all situations. Never, I insisted, could there possibly be an excuse for lying to a child.
My husband Aaron agreed, and with the birth of our son, we set out on our adventure of perfect openness and truth telling. We took a policy of plain, simple truth telling, no embroidering or glossing over, and certainly no outright fabrication.
We were honest about the despised food items in his plate –“Yes, those are potatoes. Take one bite,” we’d say. No pretending they were magical unicorn eggs that would turn him into a superhero; they were potatoes, no more, no less.
We were straightforward about the existence of Santa. As our two-year-old son approached his first memorable Christmas, he was fascinated with Santa-themed decorations. We told him that Santa was a nickname for a kind man named Nicholas who had lived long ago, and we remembered him at Christmas time. He was a story, we explained: department store, mall, or bell-ringing Santas were regular people wearing costumes. He appeared to accept this, if grudgingly, and we congratulated ourselves on our honesty.
Our self-congratulation continued as we explained the precise facts about the Easter Bunny: he was a kind person in a costume, we told our three-year-old the next year, leaving candy for children to celebrate spring. How nice! Unfortunately, Niko’s patience with our honesty regarding the world had been wearing thin; he had been indignant that we continued to insist in Santa’s historical accuracy, but at our declaration that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, he was crushed. “But I want the Easter Bunny! I want him to be real!” he wailed. But it was too late; we couldn’t backtrack. No, our son would know that Santa Claus is a cultural memory of a historical figure, the Easter Bunny is the funny leftover traditional costumed character of an ancient custom, and his potatoes are just potatoes. We remain relentlessly honest, although, I suspect, we may be able to reach some sort of quiet compromise where we don’t insist quite so firmly in these beloved characters’ nonexistence.
But then, one day, there was a hard question. The kind of question for which honesty just can’t do the job.
We were in the car, where so many of these questions come flying at me. Niko, now four, was asking about love. “Will you always love me, Mom?” he asked. This has been a common theme for him, a source of mild anxiety at times, and once — when he discovered there had been a time I hadn’t been his mom and thus hadn’t known him, therefore hadn’t loved him — well, that had been an interesting conversation.
“I will always love you, for ever and ever,” I declared.
“Will you love me if I die?”
“I will love you if you die. People don’t stop loving their family who die. They miss them, but they don’t stop loving them.”
“What if you die? Will you still love me if you die?”
And there it was. The question. The one I can’t really answer. The one theologians, church fathers, religionists of all sorts, of all creeds and doctrines, can’t really answer. We just don’t know, do we? Many of us believe our consciousness continues after death. We go on — to heaven, to nirvana, to reincarnation, to a place of waiting, to the clouds. But do we maintain a connection to those we leave behind, or do we continue without looking back? Do we keep on loving, or do we forget? For every dramatic return-from-beyond-the-veil account that suggests one answer, another contradicts; for each passage from a holy book that points in one direction, another passage points another way.
I was raised on the Bible like most kids are raised on peanut butter and jelly, on meat and potatoes. In the communes in which I was raised, we read the Bible at mealtimes, at church three times a week, at school daily, in private devotions. In school, we were expected to use it as reference to support viewpoints in essays on any subject, from history to science to opinions on skirt length. So it’s with a bit of authority that I say: the Bible has not a whole lot to say on this exact subject, that of love after death. The one thing that echoes uncomfortably in my mind on the subject is a song that ought to be reassuring, a song whose melody was written by my mother’s dear friend — someone I consider a second mother — and whose words come from Revelation 21:4-5:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, from their eyes/ There shall be no more sorrow/ No more pain/ No more death. For the former things are passed away, are passed away/ Are passed away/ And behold, He has made all things new.
In my mind, I hear her clear voice singing the simple and beautiful melody, her fingers caressing the strings of the guitar in a way that’s as familiar to me as her smile, her eyes calm with the strength and peace that you only see in someone who’s been through more than their fair share of sorrow and tears and has carried a spark of joy throughout. She’s a woman of unshakeable faith, and that’s why I absolutely believe the words of this song. And that’s why I can’t answer my son’s question honestly.
You see, I believe a portion of love is pain and sorrow. A parent can’t see a son’s bewilderment at a friend’s rejection and not share his sorrow. You can’t hold your daughter’s fevered body and not sense her pain. When a loved one suffers, you suffer too. When you’re separated from those you love, that hurts as well. Even in hypothetical perfect, ideal relationships, even if we don’t actively cause pain to those that are closest to us through betrayal or misunderstanding, loving another person involves pain. And so, if God is erasing pain and sorrow from us as we pass through death, the only way that’s possible is if we stop loving those we’ve left behind.
Now, there are still plenty of possibilities. Perhaps we don’t go all the way on at first — other verses in the Bible make reference to clouds of witness watching those still in the daily struggle on Earth, for example. Perhaps this particular description in Revelation is only to the end of times. Perhaps some are even allowed to stay with those they love for a time. That’s what I’d like to believe, even though I don’t actually think it’s true.
When I was fourteen, my protective, almost-seventeen-year-old brother Charles died in a boating accident with a group of other young people and chaperones from our close-knit community. I felt his loss badly, of course, right from the beginning, but it wasn’t till I got older that I began to realize how much we both were missing. He never got to meet my husband, something I regret — they would have appreciated each other, I think. I missed him at my wedding, and he didn’t see me get married. I missed him desperately when my son was born. And I wanted so, so badly to believe what I knew couldn’t be true, that somehow he was still watching over and loving me. That’s why, when Niko protested the Easter Bunny’s status as a pretend creature, I sympathized. And that’s why, when he asked if I’d still love him if I died, I couldn’t tell him what I thought was an honest answer. I couldn’t tell him no. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe.
When Niko was born, I had a terribly hard time transitioning him from bassinet to crib, clutching him and sobbing the first time I tried to lay him down in the crib that seemed long miles from the bed. When I finally managed it, the first time I made the trip at night from our room to the nursery to feed him, there was a not-really-there shadow leaning over his crib. As I said, it wasn’t really there. Not visible, not really. But the invisible shadow had (to me) a clear attitude of protective love. After that, for several weeks, each time I staggered sleepily to the nursery for a night feeding, the not-really-there shadow was faithfully stooped over his crib. Not once did I have any sense of anxiety, fear, or spookiness. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time that it occurred to my sleep-hazed mind to think Wait…what? before I dismissed it, deciding I just didn’t need to know. Eventually, it wasn’t there any more, but for the weeks that it leaned over my son’s crib at night, I felt a sense of peace, of watchful protection.
I know that my friends run the gamut of faith. As they’re reading this, some are thinking, How amazing. God is so good! He sent your brother to care for your son! And others are thinking, Honey, get some rest and tell your doctor you need better pills, because something is not right with your brain. I’m sure my scientist best friend, who currently bends his remarkable brain to the study of regenerative biology, is shaking his head as he reads this and is exercising all his considerable powers of kindness to not tell me I’m cuckoo. And maybe a few in the middle are just thinking that a sleep-deprived mom in a shadowy room shouldn’t be surprised if she imagines a few strange things.
All I know is, when my son asked me if I would love him after I died, I had a split second to balance those two thoughts: my own irrational desire for reassurance of my brother’s love after he died (and the fresh memory of my son’s sorrow at the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny and panic at his realization that I once hadn’t loved him because I hadn’t been his mommy), and the Biblical assurance that we would experience no more sorrow after death. I could have launched into a philosophical discussion about the uncertainty of the afterlife, about the adventure that follows stepping through the mysterious dark door of death. I could have told him that love is full of sorrow and pain, and we’re assured a life without those in the times to come. I could have been honest, I could have told him: I don’t know. But he’s four. And I chose love.
“I will always love you, sweetie,” I promised him. “Always. No matter what. If I die, or if you die, I will always love you.” I lied. I lied to my son. And I have not a single regret.
In an unusual turn of events, three photographs I chose for this post aren’t my own. The black-and-white photo of my brother twirling in a striped shirt was taken my my Aunt Martha, probably in 1985; the color photos of my son in a plaid shirt and brown vest were taken by Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography.