Late one night 36 years ago, my friend Vicki whispered to me in the dark that when you die, you float through outer space forever. Then she promptly fell asleep. I stayed up all night, staring into the darkness like a cat on acid. I did not tell my parents what she had said or how profoundly afraid it made me feel.
I remembered this the other day when Sam got home from a weekend of snow camping with the Boy Scouts, which, when you’re 9 years old, means you sleep on a cot inside a lodge at an old scout camp and in the morning when you wake up and run outside, there’s snow. He was wired and ragged when he arrived home Sunday night and, within minutes, started being mean to me and the pets. He was actually mean to our dog, Sadie, which I’d thought was about as low as the limbo pole goes around here. But it wasn’t until he was hostile to Goldie the Goldfish, flicking his fingernails against the side of her bowl, that I figured out he was in some kind of emotional trouble; that he was probably scared.
It came out that the boys had stayed up most of the night two nights in a row, discussing (in the pitch dark) what happens to you after death. All the bad bases were covered: The worms going in and out, playing pinochle on your snout, the candle flame of your awareness being snuffed out, rotting in hell—flames, sulfur, Jon Lovitz in a red devil suit.
Sam and I were sitting on the bathroom floor when he told me this. I told him what Vicki had told me years ago, and also how I had slowly over the years come to believe in heaven. He looked at me with a mix of pity and embarrassment. Then he asked if he could be cryogenically frozen.
What was I going to say? “No, honey, we don’t have the money.” But before I could answer, he said, “Do you have to die before they freeze you?” I said that was the general order of things, and he said, in great pain, “But that’s the problem. I don’t want to die.”
I said that he would probably not die for 80 years. He said, “I don’t even want to die in 80 years. I don’t ever want to die.”
It was just awful, and no amount of peppy Jesus talk could touch it. So I moved East, into Buddhism and Hinduism, and I said that his body was like an old car that he’d leave by the road someday, and he said (and I quote), “Your body is like an old car. It’s like Brian’s old car. It’s like an old Rambler, with broken windows.”
I said that this was nice of him to say. And thanked him for sharing.
“You know what I mean,” he said. “But my body is new. It’s like a 1998 Dodge Viper.” But this wasn’t fun for him. He was in dread.
What can you tell your child in the face of this existential bad news? That he will live to be 90? And that then, surrounded by all of his loved ones, including you, who will only be 125, he will slowly, free of pain, drift off into a deep peaceful sleep, en route to a Hallmark heaven where there will he no more fear, tooth decay, homework or girls?
I almost did say this, in fact. Instead, I said the world’s greatest prayer: Help! Quietly, but loud enough so Sam could hear, I said, “Hi, God. Sam and I need a little help right now. We’re thanking you in advance, because you are a trustworthy God.”
He didn’t say anything. He was crying but he did not want to be held, like a baby. So he sat on the bathroom floor several feet away from me, and I handed him the box of Kleenex, and he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt and then shredded a tissue. It took every ounce of my being not to nag him to pick it all up. He shredded another. A snowdrift of Kleenex grew while I thought what to do, and the best I could come up with was to remember the one God thing I’m sure of, which is that God does not offer to take away our suffering or fear but instead to fill it with His or Her presence. So I decided to fill Sam’s terror with me.
“What do you believe in?” I asked. “I thought you believed in Jesus.”
“I do; I just believe in all the other gods, too.”
“Oh,” I said nicely. “What other gods?”
“The Greek and Roman gods.”
OK, I almost sneered, would you mind naming names—would you mind telling me some of the names of these other gods you believe in? But I didn’t. The snowdrift of Kleenex grew higher.
A woman told me recently that when she could not begin to fathom an afterlife, a pastor told her that the bulb cannot conceive of the flower it will become. It thinks that bulb-hood is all there is, like Peggy Lee sang. Is that . . . all there is . . . to a bulb?
So I passed this along to Sam. “Let me think about this,” he said. His eyes were very red from crying but he scooched over on the floor until he was beside me and then butted his nose against the shoulder of my T-shirt, like a horse that is trying to get you to give it the lump of sugar. I found this very touching, until I realized he was wiping his nose on me.
“Eewwhh,” I said, and finally he smiled. This was the first sign of movement in Sam’s stuckness, and it gave me the beginnings of hope. “Will you rub my back?” he asked. And I said of course I would, so he stretched out on the bathroom rug, and I began to give him a massage. He was very tight and stiff at first. I hummed a little song and waited for God’s help. Then I suddenly remembered the best story I heard last year, and I laughed very quietly. I did not tell it to Sam that night but I will tell it to you:
“Great,” they said, and set about planning for a specially equipped bike such as a 10-year-old kid with cerebral palsy might be able to ride without hurting himself.
“No,” he said, “I want a bike like all the other 10-year-olds in the neighborhood. I want a regular two-wheeler.”
They did their best to talk him out of it, explaining how the kids on regular bikes had started out on trikes, and then moved on to bikes with training wheels and, after a great deal of practice, moved on to a big kid bike with hand brakes, and then gears.
He said he knew that, but he was too big for a trike or even training wheels, and he just wanted a chance to ride a regular two-wheeler.
So after stalling for as long as possible, trying to talk him out of it or distract him, they got him a bike—with training wheels.
“No!” he said. “You don’t understand. I want a bike like the other 10-year-olds. And that means NO TRAINING WHEELS.”
So they took the training wheels off, and the boy got on, and then he fell over. He tried to get on his bike and ride it, as he must have seen himself doing in his mind for a long time, and it did not go well at all. It was very painful for his parents and continued to be as day after day he got on his bike and fell over.
But he kept trying.
After a very long time, after months and months and months, he could wobble down the block, but he still often fell over and could not steer worth a shit, and he ended up in the hospital several times. He broke his arm and several other bones and had two concussions, and it was killing his parents with disappointment on his behalf and fear on theirs, that he would hurt or kill himself, land too hard on his head or wobble out into traffic.
But they let him keep trying. This is more inspiring to me than I can say.
“After three years,” my friend told me, “he was able to ride pretty steadily around the block. Three years it took him to master what took the other kids two or three weeks. And then,” she said, “it took him six more months to learn to let go of one handlebar, so he could wave to you as he peddled past.”
So I sat on the bathroom floor, rubbing Sam’s shoulders and back, letting him try to find his bearings. And trying to find my own.
I just want to change the nature of life so that my son will never have to be too afraid or disappointed, but will still somehow get to learn life’s sweet and terrible lessons anyway. Is that so much to ask? I sighed.
“This is never going to be great,” he said.
“No. But you’ll have company while you’re trying to live with it.”
“Is this the best thing you can think of to tell me?”
After a minute I nodded.
“I just really want to be frozen when I die.”
I was silent again for a moment, thinking. Then I said, “OK, honey. Now, how about a bubble bath?” Like in the old days, I wanted to add, when you were younger, and death did not loom quite so large and clear. He sniffled, then sat up and wiped his nose on my sleeve again.
“Would you STOP that?” I said, and he laughed. Then he did it again, and I started laughing too. “That’s disgusting!” I said, and he laughed even louder.
We did this for a while and I thought, This is the little miracle. This is the alchemy. That my child was stiff and stricken, in dread, and now he is laughing and being disgusting. He can play again, for now. Then he agreed to a bubble bath even though he mostly showers now. It’s much more manly. But he let me draw him a bath, and he took off his clothes and climbed in, and as I was headed out the door, he asked me to stay. So I put the lid down on the toilet and flipped through an old magazine while Sam splashed around. He tried unsuccessfully to juggle handfuls of bubbles. He disappeared under the water to practice holding his breath and every so often sneaked a look at me with his long sideways glances, just checking in. And after a while I put the magazine down on my lap, so I could wave.