My son, Matt ~ When I picked him up from Moon Valley School, I could see he was upset.
“Mom, do you know what happens to us when we die!”
“Charlie sang a song about John Henry, and when he died, they buried him in the ground!”
“Well, what did you think happens to us after we die? You don’t see any dead people lying around on street corners.”
After a solemn pause, he said, ”Well, I guess I thought we ate them.”
“No. Not in this country anyway.”
I saw the despair in his crestfallen face, and realized I should have come up with more thoughtful response.
“If we die, then what’s the point of living?” he demanded to know.
Matthew was knocked sideways and down an existential path that was immense for a four-year-old. It took a month to comfort him out of it. It took a month for him to think life would be worth living, even if he were going to die at some point. And it took a month for him to bounce back and be four and joyful and himself again.
Postscript: Years later, when Matt was home for college break, I had on a Harry Belafonte CD and that same song was playing as he passed by my bedroom door … he laid down his hammer and he died, Great God, laid down his hammer and he died. Oh they took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand. He backed up, stuck his head in, and flatly stated, “I never did like that song.”
My grandson ~ Driving down East Napa Street with my grandson when he was four, Satchel pipes up from his car seat, “There’s dead people under those rocks you know.” I look over my left shoulder and see he’s talking about at the cemetery.
“I know. That’s where they put our bodies when we die.”
“What do they do with the heads?” he queries.
I explain we no longer need our bodies when our spirit leaves.
“Yeah, but what do they do with the heads?” he asks again.
Death did not slam my grandson the way it sucker-punched my son. Satch is quite matter-of-fact about death, and is also under the assumption that his Great-Grandpa Cal and Matt’s beloved dog Sam are on the roof together because my son looks up from the sofa and points to heaven when his son asks what happened to them.
My grandson’s younger cousin ~ written by Busha, Satchel’s maternal grandmother: My four-year-old granddaughter, Mare, who has been experiencing a fear of death the past couple of months came out with this yesterday, on the 96th birthday of my mother, now six years in heaven:
“I’m happy that all my family that is dead is in heaven. And that we all go to heaven and we will all be together again. And I’m happy that their blood is in my body. Because when they are in heaven their sparkles are in my blood and they love me. And then we’re all together and then we will be new babies again. I’m glad I get to be a new baby again because I don’t want to be dead for a whole weekend.”