This week we had to say goodbye to a family member. Our 12 year old cat Aragorn passed away (yes, you now know my geeky little secret), and I was faced for the first time with explaining some pretty heavy stuff to my kids.
I wound up with "Our kitty went to heaven where he is very happy and having fun playing with other kitties." It was satisfying to them but not so much to me.
I have run the religious gamut in my life, from being raised Catholic to winding up a pagan. At this point in my life, I have settled somewhere off the beaten path with some still-confused but mostly satisfying beliefs about what's going on around here. But those beliefs I came to over a long time, a lot of experience, and plenty of introspection. I can't really explain them to my kids, for one because they would stare at me blankly and ask to watch Caillou, and for another because they are very personal beliefs - and a part of those beliefs is the conviction that such things must be personal for everyone.
I don't believe in God, exactly. Nor do I believe there's just nothing out there. I don't believe there is some puppet master in a nebulous location pulling the strings and running the show. I also don't believe that there is no meaning at all to our lives here, that we are simply unimportant bits of matter moving from the cradle to the grave.
My kids themselves are part of my reasons for believing as I do. They are an incredible mixture of two types of miracle: the medical miracle, and the far less concrete miracle I can only refer to as divine.
Nolan was conceived by a miracle of modern medicine, and his ability to smile and speak like any other child also requires a nod to science. Aaron, on the other hand, was conceived by a more divine miracle to parents told that natural conception was just not going to happen; yet without the miracles of modern science he would not be here today. Medical miracles allowed a preemie to live and to thrive and to have the chance to experience the miraculous life given to him. For both of my kids, I have much thanks and praise to give to science. But when I look at them sleeping, or see the light in their eyes as they experience the simplest beauties in life, I know that there is something divine there.
I don't want to lie to my kids about death. I can't tell them that there is a kindly God waiting beyond pearly gates for them. The truth is that I don't know what's on the other side. And although many may be convinced of the existence of heaven, they don't really know either. None of us do, until we get there. So how to give my kids peace in the face of the death of a beloved pet, and yet avoid the pretty lies that are so easy to tell? Maybe that's a problem for another day. For now, at this age, they were satisfied with the story that Aragorn has passed on to somewhere else, somewhere beyond this life that for lack of a better word I called heaven.
I know I will have to face harder questions down the line. But for now, I think heaven lies on the same plane as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny - both of whom we have brought into our kids lives simply because I can't deny them that simple childhood joy I remember so well. Someday, I will have to explain to them that these things don't exist - only heaven will be the harder one. I simply don't know for sure if it exists, and I want them to make their own determination on what belief works best for them, one day.
I believe in the divine. I can't help but believe. But I don't think it lies somewhere out there. I think it's here, now, everywhere around us. I don't want my kids to miss the divine that is in every moment of their precious lives because they have been told that the divine lies in the beyond; that they won't be able to touch it until after death. I just wish I knew how to explain that to them. Maybe when they are older. For now, I envy them their ability to just believe that Aragorn has gone somewhere awesome. Because I kind of think right here with us, our weird little family, is a pretty awesome place to be. So I guess I'll go back to trying to enjoy it rather than immersing myself in questions of the afterlife.
Maybe I should have told them Aragorn went west and away over the sea, and into the Grey Havens. Maybe I should believe that myself.