By James Lough
Featured art: Yin and Yang by Mariama Condé
It seems I’m to blame for my three-year-old son’s conversion to religion. It begins around five o’clock on a warm autumn afternoon at an open window. I am bent over, tidying up his Thomas the Tank Engine pieces scattered on the rug. Simon is standing at the tall, open window, a window hung low in the wall, its sill even with his knees. He’s watching the low, golden light play off the grass. Outside the window is a twenty-five foot drop. He presses his little palms against the screen and leans in for a closer look.
I panic and shout. “Simon Simon no no no get back!”
His shoulders pinch up, his body freezes. I’ve gone all warp spasm, sending him into whole body shock, cinching his little spine up like a train wreck. He doesn’t know the window screen is loose, barely hanging in its frame, that his mom’s been bugging me to fix it and I’ve been busy getting around to it. All Simon knows is that there is beautiful rose-gold light on the grass, then suddenly I’m shouting at him and yanking his arm.
Trying to calm both of us, I get down on my knees. I don’t want to traumatize him, but the issue is grave. He must learn not to do this again.
“Simon, I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to listen. Are you listening? If you fell out of that window, you would probably be dead.”
His green eyes are so full of vulnerable, open feeling they might burst. Simon is a sensitive dreamer, a poet, with milk-pale blonde hair and a fine straight nose, high cheekbones and full lips. One morning, my wife sets two orange slices parallel on the tray of his high chair.
He says, “Rocking chair.”
If he’s watching a nature show and a jaguar nabs a baby deer, he sobs and demands we turn it off. As the older child, he is also growing more complicated. He wants to get things right. He worries.
Worriers make thorough thinkers, and Simon’s worry runs deep. He’ll pursue what you said a month ago with a follow-up question in his nose-plugged oboe voice. Remember how you told me to water this plant every Saturday? What if it rains?
And now, a few feet from the window, I am resting my hands on his shoulders and looking directly into his eyes. My tone is gentle but solemn.
“Do you know what ‘dead’ means?”
He shakes his head no.
“‘Dead’ means you’re gone, Simon. Gone forever. No more Mommy, no more Daddy, no more little brother J.J. Gone. You’ll never see us again. We don’t want you to be gone, Simon. Do you want to be gone?”
He swallows and shakes his head no.
“Neither do we. We love you and want you to be around. So please, please don’t go near that window. Okay?”
He nods again. I give him a good, long hug.
I add an item to the bottom of my list of things to do . . .
- DE-RUST GARAGE BEAM
- TRASH BAGS
- TELL BOYS I LOVE THEM
Like many of us, my three-year-old ran scared to religion. Unlike many of us, he did it his own way.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool believer, it’s easy to explain religion to your kids. You tell them what’s what, what’s not, and that’s that.
Mom and I believe in God and so do you. It’s what we do.
It’s equally easy for devout atheists.
Only Cro-Magnons believe in fairy tales. We are not Cro-Magnons, therefore . . .
Or affable agnostics, palming it all off with an “above my pay grade” shrug.
But what about parents whose spiritual views are a shade more complicated? How do we convey complex views to kids whose minds are at a developmental level that’s perfectly content to view God as a pissed off old neighbor waiting for you to walk on his lawn? As to what happens after death—or doesn’t—I am even less confident. Maybe we are gone for good, maybe not. And maybe, if we are honest, none of us has a clue.
So when it comes time to guiding my kids into a religious belief system, I’m standing on ice. Granted, with Simon I used the conspicuous word gone, implying forever. I used it purely out of expedience, to keep him alive by keeping him afraid.
Two weeks after Simon’s near-death experience, we’re in the minivan going out for pizza. It’s a normal Friday evening; we’re listening to Wee Tunes and filled with the bright optimism of what passes for a night on the town when you have small kids.
I park the van in the lot. As I turn to unbuckle Simon from his child’s seat, I notice his closed mouth growing taut and turning down as his eyebrows pull up like a drawbridge. He’s in the middle of one of those long, breathtaking pauses before the big wail commences. One second, two seconds, and then he lets loose a howling storm of grief.
“What’s wrong? ”
He can’t answer through the sobs.
When his tears finally cease, he sits there looking down at his feet to avoid my eyes. “I don’t want to die!” he says and begins to howl again.
My heart sinks. No Mommy, no Daddy, just gone.
As he sits there feeling the full force of his mortality—and I don’t mean to be callous—the rest of us are feeling a deep need for pizza. But I can’t just tell him to forget about it. I can’t say, “Aw you’re not gonna die.” Simon is screwing his fists into his eyes trying to stop crying while behind me, my wife Jenn and J.J. gawk in wonder.
Then inspiration hits.
“Simon,” I say. “Some people believe that when you die, you go to Heaven.”
He stops rubbing his eyes. “What’s Heaven?”
“It’s God’s house,” I mouth.
“What’s it like?”
“Huge,” I assert. “Super nice. Remember the Marriott with the pool?”
The light is returning to his eyes.
J.J. whines behind us. “Let’s go!”
“I’m hungry,” Simon says. The head-fake worked. We’re off for pizza.
Later, I add an item to my list of things to do:
- DE-RUST GARAGE BEAM
TRASH BAGS TELL BOYS I LOVE THEM
- PICTURES OF HEAVEN F/SIMON
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I decided to confront death head on. I was a suburban hippie living in Boulder, Colorado, a small town that offered an international smorgasbord of religious choices, new and old. Hare Krishna, Gurdjieff Fourth Way Training, Tibetan Buddhism—they arrived in the ‘70s, set their roots, and continue to flourish there in its fertile metaphysical soil. Although I didn’t know it then, I was chronically depressed. I didn’t know because I’d been depressed most of my life, like the proverbial fish unaware of water. I assumed everyone always felt tired and hopeless. So my spiritual yearnings were sincere. There’s nothing so earnest as unhappiness.
In my readings on spiritual matters, one thing I came to understand was that your life changes, presumably for the better, when you realize that your time on earth is limited.
I understood death intellectually but didn’t feel it in my bones. I believed that feeling it would indeed change me, would help steer my sluggish state of futility onto a more hopeful path, something like wisdom.
Since I was a self-conscious college kid with no ready access to wisdom, I naturally came up with a plan to open a casket factory. My father had taught me basic carpentry. I would make affordable pine boxes for the bereaved who were not rich or vulnerable enough to spend $10,000 on a hermetically sealed metal casket. As I stooped over each pine box, fitting it to the corpse of Mr. Miller or Mrs. Rodriguez, as I rubbed sandpaper into its surface, breathing in sawdust, I would fathom the phrase dust to dust. I would absorb a sweet-sad understanding that I too was a particle of Everything. I would develop a calm about me, a melancholy mother-of-pearl luster, and that would take care of that. Back then, I had already started the eternal list of things to do.
- LEARN TO MEDITATE
- STUDY FOR INTELLECTUAL HISTORY EXAM
- CHECK PRICE OF PLYWOOD (CASK.)
But the casket factory got shelved at the ideation stage, and for ten more years, I managed to push death to the back of my mind. I was frozen in denial of my own mortality.
Then I turned thirty.
I was living in San Francisco, enjoying my birthday party in the half-lit living room of our second-floor flat. I was holding an icy gin and tonic, exchanging small talk with a circle of people, one of whom mouthed the perfunctory question: How does it feel to be thirty? The question snuck up behind me and toppled a domino in my psyche. As each subsequent domino fell, spilling into an infinite black void, I went into a panic. My shoulders raised and my body froze up. It was as if Death itself had snatched a sliver of ice from my drink and pushed it into my heart.
I felt it now. It wasn’t all in my head. I knew that I knew, and how did I know? Because it scared the shit out of me. No luster, just sub-zero terror flashing in my chest like someone smashed a window in there. It was appalling, knowing that on an unknown day I would be snatched away by force. Kidnapped by indifferent thugs and never released.
Gone. Do you know what gone means?
A year or so after Simon’s minivan memento mori, I’m busy getting tasks done on my computer at home. It’s a fine morning, sunlight streaming through the window. Simon and J. J. are in here with me, making forts and pup tents out of some books in my bookcase.
Simon comes up to me holding a little black paperback of Dante’s Inferno. On the cover there’s a beastly medieval illustration, “The Vision of Hell,” painted by an anonymous sadist. It’s a horror show crowd scene of naked sinners with paunches and poor muscle tone tumbling, rung after rung, into the level of Hell appropriate to their sins. The only ones smiling are the demons, who boil people in big pots, pour molten metal down their throats, and welcome the new in with big, barbed fishhooks.
“Daddy, what’s this?”
I let out a sigh through puffed cheeks. Here we go. “It’s an artist’s picture of Hell.”
“Remember when I told you about Heaven?”
“God’s house?” In the dust-speckled sunlight, Simon’s pale skin is radiant, his jade-colored eyes wide-open and watching.
“You know how some people believe Heaven is where people go when they die? Some people believe Hell is where God sends bad people.”
My boys have somehow acquired the idea that any kind of bad person, from Adolf Hitler to someone who parks in handicap spaces, is called a burglar.
“Do you believe in Hell, Daddy?”
He looks up at me sidelong. “But you believe in Heaven.”
“Sort of,” I say. “Some people believe in reincarnation.” I explain the theory. As he listens, he examines the pandemoniac book cover. Hell has a hold on him. He shows it to his little brother.
Note that Simon pointed out how perfectly willing I was to entertain the idea of Heaven, but I was sure there was no Hell. (Good eye, Simon.)
A few months later, I’m busy giving Simon and J.J. their communal bath. I don’t have a clue how the topic comes up, but Simon, pushing a toy boat on the water, looks up at me and makes a proclamation:
“I believe in retardation.”
I nod and gently correct his usage, secretly glad that he believes what I would believe if I believed. Maybe I do believe it a little, but more delicious is knowing you’ve made someone believe what you believe—which is perilously easy with your children. At the same time, I envy Simon’s certainty. If only it were just a matter of believing it and making it so, like how kids believe they deserve something in direct proportion to how intensely they desire it.
“But Daddy I really, really want an X-Box!”
Nevertheless, that’s that. Simon’s confrontation with death has led him to accrue a set of beliefs, what some might call an escape hatch from the terror of uncertainty. He’ll order Heaven, but if it’s out of stock, he’ll have the reincarnation.
I add an item to my list.
- DE-RUST GARAGE BEAM
TRASH BAGS REMIND BOYS I LOVE THEM
SHOW SIMON PAINTINGS OF HEAVEN
- PICTURE BOOK REINCARNATION?
Then comes the driveway moment. When Simon is in the first grade, I’m driving him home from school, before I go pick up J.J. at his school, before I finally buy DeRusto at the hardware store, before I grade a stack of 40 papers. As the car comes to a stop in our driveway, Simon’s theology takes a quantum leap. It comes out of the blue, as these things do. The way we are situated is significant, with me in the front seat and Simon in back, like a confessional or a therapist’s couch, where we make it a point to avoid eye contact. Simon, donned in his public school uniform, strapped into his car seat, tosses out a spicy metaphysical morsel.
“Daddy,” he asks. “Why did God make burglars?”
I couldn’t have been prouder if he’d aced the PSAT, or whatever the first-grade equivalent is that gets kids started on the treadmill of academic stress.
“Why did God make burglars” is the question—isn’t it?—for people who would believe. Why would an all-knowing, all-good, all-loving God create characters like torturers? Terrorists? Telemarketers? People who file their nails while dealing out agony and destruction. People whose phone calls throw us off our to-do lists.
Why did God make burglars?
This same question famously tormented St. Augustine. But Simon takes it a step further. He instantly follows up with a theory. Or rather a story:
“Maybe it was God’s mean cousin. Maybe God writes things on the whiteboard . . .”
The evening before, I had stopped by my office to pick up some work that was hanging over me. Since Jenn had to get groceries, I brought Simon and J.J. After they took rides on the elevator and got to drink a whole entire, undiluted Sprite from the soda machine, he and J.J. dashed into my classroom and, feverish on high-fructose corn syrup, started drawing pictures on the whiteboard.
Last night’s whiteboard is fresh in Simon’s mind. He speculates aloud:
“God writes words like humans and people and cars on his whiteboard, and that’s how they become real. But God’s cousin can’t spell. He meant to write something else, but it came out burglars.”
Simon has concocted a story to explore the troubling dual nature of our sacred, sordid hearts. When I was his age, my deep insights came from “Sugar, Sugar, oh Honey Honey.”
The next Saturday, at the second of three soccer games followed by a birthday party for a kid that Simon barely knows, a parent tells me his kid was the only one in the entire grade to overcome fraction strips, multiple strategies, and manipulatives, to explain his work and still manage to solve the extra credit problem on his math test.
“That’s great!” I say breezily, adding, “Simon solved the problem of evil.”
But it hurts my heart to know that beneath Simon’s ingenuity, there lurks a clawing fear of being gone forever. And here I’ve inspired a child who, instead of dwelling in simple, miraculous unknowing, feels compelled to grapple with death. Simon learned this at three rather than thirty. And I had been the one who taught him.
The window screen, I find out, can’t be fixed. Its aluminum frame is bent. So I buy a new one, prefabricated to fit the standard-sized window, like the ready-made answers I fed Simon, flimsy when pressed.
Up in his room one late afternoon near dusk, I’m installing the new screen as Simon sets up a new track for his Thomas train.
“Dad,” are you thinking what I am thinking?”
“I don’t know,” I say, bracing myself for another existential Q&A. “What are you thinking?”
Relieved, I turn back to the window and am startled to see a man looking back at me. A middle-aged man, graying, his face engraved with worry, his double chin bulging like a bullfrog’s. My God. This is who I’ve become. How could I have missed it? My bathroom mirror, apparently, is a habitual liar. It’s been showing me what I want to see, that I’m aging only in miniscule increments, if at all. It’s store windows that tell the hard truth, tinted car windows you walk past in parking lots, where your aging self catches you by surprise, grabbing your attention like breaking news.
Simon approaches me at the window. “Do you think a meteor made them extinct?”
“That’s the theory,” I say, happy to forget the image I’ve just uncovered.
Of course, the idea of being gone for good is yet another inherited story, a logical-positivistic construction, a prefab mouth sound issuing from a brave face.
When I die I hope the speaker at my funeral says something like, “He loved many, was loved by a few, and crossed everything off his to-do list.” And if there is an afterlife, I hope it has me rising out of my casket (preferably pine), borrowing a pen, and crossing off the only item I could not cross off when alive:
Then I would crawl back into the casket, like crawling into bed, and call it quits, looking forward to some rest. Because sometimes I get insomnia. When it visits, I usually get out of bed, grab a snack, and putter barefoot around the house, crossing items off the list. Or sometimes I stay in bed, stare at the backs of my eyelids and wait for sleep. If the afterlife is anything like insomnia, I’d rather just rest in peace, thanks. Gone. Forever.
James Lough’s book, Short Circuits: Aphorisms, Fragments, and Literary Anomalies (Schaffner Press) won an IPPY award. He won Electric Lit’s 280-Character Story contest. Lionsgate Entertainment optioned his book This Ain’t No Holiday Inn, about the Chelsea Hotel, for TV. He teaches writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design.