One day, my four-year-old son, Sam, told me that he had seen his baby-sitter crying because she had broken up with her boyfriend.
“She was sad,” Sam explained to me.
Then he sat back in his car seat and sighed. “I’ve never been sad,” he said, dreamily, “Not ever.” It was true. Sam’s life was happy in no small part because of his special relationship with my father.
Last spring my father died, and everything changed for us. Pa Hood was more than just a grandfather to Sam. As Sam eagerly told everyone, they were best buddies. Long before my father became ill, Sam and I watched the movie Anne of Green Gables. In the scene when Anne wished aloud for a bosom friend, Sam sat straight up. “That’s me and Pa,” he declared. “Bosom friends forever and ever.” My father described their relationship the same way.
When I went out of town to teach one night a week, it was Pa in his red pickup truck who met Sam at school and brought him back to his house, where they played pirates and knights and Robin Hood. They even dressed alike: pocket T-shirts, baseball caps, and jeans. Sam had over nights with Pa, where they’d cuddle until late at night and giggle when my mother ordered them to be quiet and go to sleep. The next morning they’d indulge in sugary cereals and cartoons, treats forbidden at home. They had special restaurants they frequented, playgrounds where they were regulars, and toy stores where Pa allowed Sam to race up and down the aisles on motorized cars.
When I’d arrive to take Sam home, he always cried. “Pa, I love you. I miss you already!” He memorized my father’s phone number when he was 2 and called him every morning and every night. “Pa,” Sam would ask, clutching the phone, “can I call you ten hundred more times?” Pa always said yes, and then answered the phone each time with equal delight.
In the months that my father was in the hospital with lung cancer, I worried about how Sam would react to Pa’s condition the bruises, from needles, the oxygen tubes, his weakened body. When I explained to Sam that seeing Pa so sick might scare him, Sam was surprised. “He’s my Pa,” he said. “He could never scare me.” And he never did. Sam would walk into the hospital room and climb right into bed with my father, undaunted by the changes in Pa’s appearance or in the increasing amount of medical apparatus he acquired every day. I watched adults approach the bedside with great trepidation, unsure of what to say or do. But Sam seemed to know exactly what was right: hugs and jokes, just as always. “Are you coming home soon?” he’d ask. “I’m trying,” Pa would tell him.
Since my father’s death, I have kept my overwhelming sadness at bay. When well-meaning people approach me to ask how I’m doing, their brows furrowed in sympathy, I give them a short answer and swiftly change the subject. I’d rather not confront the questions and the feelings that my dad’s death has raised. But Sam is different. He thinks that wondering aloud and sorting out together is the best way to understand.
“So,” he says, settling into his car seat, “Pa’s in space, right?” Or loudly in church, where he points upward to the stained-glass window: Is one of those angels Pa?” Right after my father died, I told Sam he was in heaven. “Where’s heaven?” Sam asked. “No one knows exactly,” I said, “but lots of people think it’s in the sky.” Sam thought about that and then shook his head. “No,” he said, “it’s very far away. Near Cambodia.” “When you die,” he said on another afternoon, “you disappear, right? And when you faint, you only disappear a little. Right?”
Each time he offers one of these possibilities he waits for me to confirm it as true. He is sorting out the things he’s certain of and the things he’s trying to understand. I think his questions are good. The part I have trouble dealing with is what he always does after he asks: He looks me right in the eye with more hope than I can stand and waits for my approval or correction or wisdom. But in this matter, my own fear and ignorance are so large that I grow dumb in the face of his innocence. The truth is, I have no answer to the question we struggle hardest with: How can we find a way to be with my father when we don’t know where or even if he is?
Remembering Sam’s approach to my father’s illness, I began to watch his approach to grief. At night, he would press his face against his bedroom window and cry, calling out into the darkness, “Pa, Pa, I love you! Sweet dreams!” Then, after his crying stopped, he would climb into bed, drained but satisfied somehow, and sleep. I, on the other hand, would wander the house all night, not knowing how to mourn. One day, in the supermarket parking lot, I caught sight of a red truck like my father’s; for an instant I forgot he had died. My heart leaped as I thought, Dad’s here shopping too! Then I remembered, and I succumbed to an onslaught of tears. Sam climbed into the front seat, jamming himself onto my lap between me and the steering wheel. “I know,” he soothed, wiping my wet cheeks. “You miss Pa, don’t you?” I managed to nod. “Me too,” he said. “But you have to believe he’s with us, Mommy. Watching and loving us. You have to believe that, or what will we ever do?” Too young to attach to a particular ideology, Sam had simply decided that the only way to deal with grief and loss was to believe that death does not really separate us from those we love. I couldn’t show him heaven on a map or explain the course a soul might travel. But he found his own way to cope. I can’t honestly say that I’ve fully accepted my father’s death, even all these months later. But my son has taught me a lot about how to grieve.
Recently, while I was cooking dinner, Sam sat by himself at the kitchen table and quietly colored in his Spiderman coloring book.
“I love you too,” he said.
I laughed and turned to face him.
“No,” I told him. “You say, ‘I love you too only after someone says, ‘I love you first.”
“I know that,” Sam said. “Pa just said ‘I love you, Sam’ and I said ‘I love you too. ”
As he spoke, he kept coloring and smiling. “Pa just talked to you?” I asked.
“Oh, Mommy,” Sam said, “he tells me he loves me every day. He tells you too. You’re just not listening.” Again, I have begun to take Sam’s lead. I have begun to listen.
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