For the last six months, my not so little anymore boy has needed a grown up to lay with him before he falls asleep. Nine nights out of ten, that someone is me. The no-nonsense part of Mom-me wants him to be able to fall asleep on his own again, a skill which suddenly abandoned him after listening in on a Diary of A Wimpy Kid story that included a reference to “The Muddy Hand”. The sappy, sentimental part of Mom-me knows that soon enough he’ll be too old to want to cuddle. It won’t be much longer before his little hand won’t fit so perfectly against the curve of my cheek. His body will soon be too big to tuck into my own, where even after nearly five years, he can still find a safe harbor to anchor himself. He will soon smell of big boy and sports and independence. He will grow up. So for now, the sappy Mom-me is winning out, by quite a large margin.
To my surprise, both of my children have adopted this twilight of consciousness as a chance to talk. Not at me, but to me. Not about what Lego set they are pining for or whether or not they will be able to watch a Clone Wars episode the next day, but about real stuff. Grown up stuff. It’s as if, safe in the dark, they can ask me all those questions that have been bubbling around in their brains during the daylight. Sometimes we talk about silly stuff, (how many different slang words can there possibly be for testicles???), but often those quiet moments of settling down before sleep are a time for them to think and muse. Perhaps their ideas or doubts or questions are too weighty or cumbersome to confront in the sunlight. Perhaps it feels safer to talk about topics such as death and dying or divorce and marriage in the security of pillows and duvets, snuggled up with a nightlight and the moon as chaperones.
These are heavy topics for small people. It’s a tough moment when you suddenly comprehend that everyone must die. I remember laying awake in my own bed as a child and sobbing with the realization that my parents would die. Of course as a child, life is lived in relativity. You don’t have the fore knowledge to realize that your emotions will mature along with your physical self. You are left with the empty feeling of imagining life as a six-year-old orphan, wondering, through a haze of incomprehension and tears, how you will manage. Because of my own father’s death, my children have had to confront the idea of mortality earlier than I would have liked. I have tried to answer their questions as honestly as I can, without frightening them. It is astonishing to me how differently they have processed their ideas through my own experiences. My older son was more concerned with the “whys”. My younger son is more concerned with what goes on in heaven.
Laying next him, his minty, toothpaste breath soft on my face, he wants to know if your soul can get a ride to heaven on the space shuttle. He has never questioned the idea of having a spirit. He is only young, too young yet to start adding grains of salt to my explanations, too young yet to start doubting what I say as the whole and unfettered truth. Though I am honest in my own uncertainty, we have, as parents, chosen to use the concept of heaven as a way of easing our kids into the notion of death. Possibly it is because I lost my father and I want them to think of him as an ever presence, safeguarding them from a place unknown. There is time enough down the road for science and biology and the circle of life. I read once that we don’t hesitate to lie to our children about Santa Claus, why is telling them about heaven any different? Childhood is ripe enough with trials and tribulations, a bumpy enough road to navigate. A little pot-hole filling on my part isn’t going to hurt. I hope.
For my older son, laying above us in the dark, the nighttime offers him protection; from scary thoughts, from embarrassment. Recently we had a conversation about what divorce was and why people get divorced and what happens afterward. I’m not sure if he caught a rogue Disney movie with the ubiquitous step-mother, but step-families and how they work were questioned too. Questions of love and how to know when you meet the person you want to marry quickly followed. Questions about maturing feelings that he can’t name or place just yet. If his still young cheeks are burning with embarrassment or uncertainty, they are hidden from me. And possibly from himself.
Like many children, I was taught to recite the classic children’s prayer before bed. Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. While it’s meant as a child’s prayer, one to give comfort and succor, it used to scare the pants off of me. It still does. My own children do not know the prayer, but I like to think of our bed time conversations as our own little ritual. I will certainly keep their souls safe against mine for as long as I can, offering them safety and comfort and answers to their questions. I cannot tell them if there is a God or a heaven, but I can be their Mom, for as long as I am alive.