Saturday, March 5, 2005

March, 2005: Wondering about Life after Death, and the Tooth Fairy

This morning, when I woke up, I heard my two boys whispering in their bedroom. Because they aren’t very good at whispering, I ended up overhearing their whole conversation.
            “The tooth fairy came last night,” Liam, 6, said.
            “Great! What’d you get?” Jacob, 10, asked.
            “A dollar and a note,” Liam said. “But I know it’s Mom.”
            “How do you know?” asked Jacob, 10, who figured out the truth about nocturnal gift-bearers himself a few years ago.
            “The note sounds just like Mom,” Liam said. “It even said that each ZIP code has its own Tooth Fairy, and that’s just what Mom told me last night.”            
            “Maybe Mom told you that because it’s true.” I had to give Jacob credit. He was really working to keep Liam believing.
            “No. I know Mom’s the Tooth Fairy,” Liam answered.
            “Well, okay,” Jacob said. “But don’t let Mom know you know.”
            Don’t let Mom know you know. To me, those words were more significant that the fact that Liam no longer believes in the Tooth Fairy. Those words showed me that Jacob was somehow trying to protect me from knowing that Liam doesn’t believe.
The older my children get, the less I am able to control what they believe or don’t believe.
            A couple of weeks ago, I was alone with Jacob in the kitchen, and somehow the subject of bodies decomposing after death came up. As I was explaining what happens to the body, Jacob suddenly started to cry.
            “Don’t talk about that,” he said. “I hate thinking about that. It scares me. I know we’re supposed to believe in Heaven, but what if we’re all wrong? What if there’s really nothing after death and you just die and that’s it?”  He put his head down on the kitchen table, still crying, and also embarrassed, I think, to have voiced his doubts.
            I was grateful Bill had the two younger children upstairs so I could give Jacob the time his question needed. At first, I started talking about faith, and how believing in something without really knowing is what faith is all about. But then, as I listened to myself from the perspective of Jacob I heard his underlying worry — that sometimes he didn’t have the faith to believe in life after death. Jacob didn’t need me to say, “Have faith.” He had doubts and he needed something to answer to his doubts. He needed to build his belief on something he already believed in.
            I skipped the faith talk and went right to love. I asked him if he believed that he loved his dad and me, if he loved his brother and sister. If he believed that love was real.
            “Of course,” he said.
            “Well, that love is God,” I said. “In the Bible, it says ‘God is love.’  So every time you feel love, you are feeling the presence of God.” I explained how when he loves someone, he’s believing in God, whether he knows it or not, and love cannot die, even if the body dies.
            We talked for a little while longer, until I saw the fear leaving his eyes a bit. Then I prayed for him. I prayed aloud, telling God that Jacob was having trouble believing in life after death, and that he needed help building his faith in this area. I asked God to send Jacob a sign that there was really life after death, because that would help him to believe.
            When I finished the prayer, I told Jacob to be on the lookout for signs.
            “I don’t know what your sign will be or when it will happen,” I said. “It might be something someone says to you. It might be something you see walking home from the bus. But you’ll know it when you see it.”
            Two weeks later, I had just about forgotten about our conversation. Jacob and I were alone in the kitchen again. An open book was sitting on the kitchen table. Our toddler, Jamie, was always dragging out forgotten books and leaving them around the house. This one was a book one of the boys had received as a Baptism gift, called I Believe.
            “Mom, it’s my sign!” Jacob suddenly said, pointing to the page that the book was open to.  I looked at where he was pointing, and read:
            Death frightens people — even people who trust in God. For death means departure and separation. Everything that makes up the life of a person is left behind. But none of us should be ashamed of our fear at the moment of death. Even Jesus called out to his Father from the Cross.     . . We believe that in dying we meet God. Our eyes, closed by death are opened once more.
            I looked at Jacob and we both laughed, amazed at what a clear sign God had chosen to give him.

            I can’t control what my children believe — and in some ways, they can’t either. Faith is often a gift, not a choice. I can only pray that they will continue coming to me, with both their beliefs and their doubts, and together, we can put them before God.