An acquaintance quipped to me today that she "seriously considered" enrolling her kids in a parochial school "because I can't motivate to teach them that stuff and I want them to have the information about tough religious questions."
I asked what tough religious questions might plague her kindergartener's mind.
"I'm especially afraid of when my kid asks what happens when we die."
Had this exchange occurred over Skype or email, my forehead might have hit the keyboard.
Seriously? I wanted to say. This is your strategy? Send Junior to school, where he will learn that dead relations go to heaven to hang out with Jesus, who is so central and important to mom and dad's world view that neither can be bothered to darken the doorway of a church themselves? Not even once a month? Or twice a year? Am I getting this right?
Because I don't know her well, I blinked in confusion and remarked that I hoped the Grape would win a good place in the public school kindergarten lottery, thereby side-stepping the whole private school conversation.
She pressed her case. "Don't you need a good story for when someone dies?"
Is it weird to think honesty is a good policy? Kids are savvier than many adults realize. I don't see anything wrong with saying I'm not sure where dead folks go, but they're gone from this life and many people believe they go to a better place.
If there is indeed a heaven, I'm willing to wager it's a place or state of being we mere mortals cannot even contemplate. With the cosmos so vast and unknowable, there's a case that it's arrogant to even try to get into the head of whatever higher powers may be.
I see no need to fill the Grape's head with trite pictures of dead relatives with wings, strumming harps on fluffy clouds.
When I was six, my grandfather and my dog died within three days of each other, both unexpectedly. (Dog landed under the wheels of a car; grandfather bled out in the OR when his aorta ruptured.)
What I recall, vividly, about that week: I was far more upset about losing the puppy. My grandfather was a great guy, but I knew the dog "better," in the immediate, child-centric sense that the dog figured in my daily life and the grandfather, who lived an ocean away, did not.
I was smart enough to realize these feelings weren't p.c., so I kept them to myself as well as a first grader could.
I also remember that my grandfather had no use for the church (his faith lapsed permanently on the front lines of Finland's miserable Winter War). He never attended, not even on a C&E basis. My grandmother, his widow and a true believer in Christ and his church, was in a nearly hysterical state over the fate of her late husband's immortal soul.
The pastor assured her that the dearly departed would go to heaven.
Back home some months later, I asked our pastor about our deceased dog's prospects for eternal life after death.
Answer: Dogs do not go to heaven. Ever.
My response: How do you know?
I don't remember his exact answer, but I recall finding it unsatisfactory. I also informed him that I had no intention of going to any class of animal-free heaven. Ever.
That was the moment my nascent faith suffered its first truly seismic crack, though it took another few years for me to reject the church fully.
Truth be told, I still consider myself a "cultural Christian." By which I mean, I enjoy the traditions, particularly around the holidays, and I believe that the Lutheran Church I left stands for some exceptional values, chief among them: take care of those less fortunate, those who are sick, alone, ailing or outcast. You know, all that socialist stuff the Religious Right finds so repugnant.
I respect that faith provides great comfort and strength to millions of people. For better or worse, I'm not one of them. So I can't see myself paying a third party to evangelize to my kid.
Call me type A, but some degree of message control is important to me. I remember when my grandmother, true believer, died decades after her husband. An old family friend came up to my sister and me at her funeral and told us not be sad. I nodded, expecting the usual "be thankful it was peaceful and she had a good life" speech.
I had to pick my jaw off the floor when she told me she was rejoicing that my grandmother had left this world to be in heaven, and that she (the friend) prayed to join her and Jesus soon. I remember being furious with the friend, and I haven't forgiven her ill-timed audacity to this day.
I'd prefer, in the event the Grape suffers a big loss, that people tell him it's okay to be sad, to grieve. Because whatever happens to the deceased, one thing in this whole scenario is certain: To a small child, it's all about him or her, not about the larger theological questions. That's why small kids ask, "Will I die?" or "Will Mommy die?" before thinking to ask "Will terminally ill, 97-year-old great aunt Sally, who lives six hours away and we see once a year, die?"
I'm also cognizant of the central role religion plays in our culture, and I would like the Grape to take some kind of classes in world religions and Bible-as-literature, as part of a well-rounded education. But I don't need to pay tuition so that someone else can assure him that Jesus loves him, or to teach him to recite a prayer from rote, just in case he dies in his sleep.
Which brings me back to kids' thoughts on death, the unpleasant subject my neighbor lady would like to outsource.
The other big thing I remember about childhood and death is that the subject wasn't handled in quite the same sanitized way it's often approached today. Maybe I was a bit of a hayseed. We had working farms on our road when I was little. I knew the meatballs on my dinner plate were ex-cows. I knew girl goats went to pasture and boy goats to slaughter. I knew that people and animals could just die of being old, or sick, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it wasn't always "fair."
I also remember standing next to my brother (three years my junior) and watching the caskets (human and animal) disappearing into the ground.
We understood, without being told, that dead means you're gone.
But we also understood gone doesn't equal forgotten.
And for me, if the Grape gets that message about death, I will feel like I've done my job.