The day my son was born I drove my daughter, who was just shy of 3 years old at the time, to the hospital to meet him. Upon arrival, she hopped into the hospital bed with her mother and the newborn and seemed thrilled beyond description to meet her newfound lifelong friend and sibling.
Later, while driving in the twilight along the freeway on the way home from the hospital, my daughter seemed unusually quiet. I asked if everything was OK. She stared out the car window from her car seat and mumbled, “Tired.” Just what a father who has been up all night and running all day after the birth of his son—especially a 45-year-old father in recovery—wants to hear: His nearly 3-year-old daughter is as tired as he is and ready to sleep.
But not so fast. As we pulled into the garage and I got out of the car to release my daughter from her car seat, I noticed her eyes were red and her cheeks were moist—clear evidence of sobbing.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart,” I asked as I lifted her out of the car and gently set her on the floor, directly under the glow of the garage door light.
And then she uttered that sentence I will never forget nor the matter-of-fact tone in which it was spoken: “I think I lost my mommy.”
By all means, you should laugh at the spectacle of the 45-year-old man down on one knee—the editor, writer, former teacher, recovering alcoholic who is never without something more to say—fumbling for a way to respond besides, “Oh, no, sweetheart, no, that’s not true at all … I mean … No … why would you ever think … ”
This situation was not described or even remotely foreshadowed in any of the many how-to-be-a-father books I had read nor did my fading memory recall any episodes of Father Knows Best in which the know-it-all father offered up anything like a remedy to this type of dilemma. Hell no.
But it did prepare me somewhat for the situation I faced tonight, 10 years later, with my now 10-year-old son. That night 10 years ago, I learned the value of being prepared to Dodge and Question rather than always try to Answer.
Tonight, as we drove to the church where his now 13-year-old sister was attending her usual Wednesday night church group with a bunch of middle school friends and their mentors, the ominous clouds of an impending thunderstorm set my son’s mind to thinking a series of what-if’s …
“Dad, if we go on vacation, what kind of plane will we fly?” he asked, staring out the window sullenly, much as his sister had done that fateful night 10 years earlier.
“I don’t know. The usual, I guess. MD-80, 737, commuter planes, whatever they put us on. Why?” (Always end with a question.)
“Can those planes fly through clouds like those?” he asked and pointed out at the enormous black square of cloud and rainfall rising up from the earth to the heavens in his side view mirror.
“Yeah, sure. Or fly around it. What are you worried about?” (Notice the kind-of-an-answer quickly corrected by a question.)
“I hope there’s a heaven,” he said, making the logical leap only a 10-year-old mind is nimble enough to make.
“You’re afraid there isn’t?” (Notice the repetition of a question here, ANY question.)
“I figured out there isn’t a Santa Claus because you did such a bad job of hiding the gifts under the bed this year, and I know the tooth fairy wouldn’t leave all my teeth in your sock drawer, and I figured out last year that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t leave the price tag on the Easter basket, but I don’t know how to figure out if there’s a heaven.”
“You don’t figure it out,” I said, proud of myself momentarily for being so direct and honest. “You believe it to be true. We talked about the difference between knowing and believing, right? You know I’m here because you have evidence, right? You can see me. You believe your sister is inside the church because you trust what she said is true, right? But you won’t know it for sure until she comes out, right?”
“Yeah, I know, and I believe in God because I feel like he protects me.”
“That’s what I believe, buddy. That’s what my experience has led me to believe over a whole lotta years.”
“Did you read it somewhere, too?”
“Nope. I didn’t learn it in books, and I don’t believe it because of all the people who told me I should.”
“You said you believe it because of what you feel in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.
“Exactly.” I was somewhat shocked he had actually listened to me whenever it was I had said that—a minor parental victory that momentarily threw me off.
“I feel God in here, too” he said, pointing again to his chest.
“But I don’t know about heaven. I don’t exactly feel heaven in here. I don’t even know what heaven is supposed to be like.”
And at that very moment, I went academic. I made four years of college, the last two as a philosophy major, and three years of graduate school all pay off. Rather than engage in a discussion about the existence of heaven and hell, I jumped on the prime opportunity to beg the question and leapfrog directly to, “Well, what do you think heaven would be like?”
“Good, I guess. I don’t know.”
“Yeah, good is good. But what about specifics? What do you think it would be like?”
“I don’t know. Is it a place? What do you think it’s like?”
He had learned the Dodge and Question strategy all too well. He’s smart that way. A natural born con artist—or politician.
“I don’t know if it’s a place, buddy. I don’t think of it that way. I try to think more about what it must feel like.”
“So what does it feel like then?”
“You know how you feel when you don’t have any homework to worry about?”
“And how you feel when a ballgame is over and you had fun but you’re not overly excited about it anymore and you’re kind of glad it’s over because you’re tired.”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Calm, right? Not worried about anything, not too excited about anything. Just kind of peaceful and calm. After that, I honestly don’t know what to think, buddy. I just think it’s peaceful and calm, and I leave it at that.”
“So if our plane crashes on the way home from vacation, we’ll end up being peaceful and calm?”
Thank God for cellphones and those critical moments when they ring—or vibrate. “Hang on, buddy. It’s your sister. … No, it’s not raining or lightning. Just run out the front door. We’re in the usual spot,” I muttered in my usual grumpy dad voice.
“I don’t think it’s going to rain anymore tonight, Dad. I think those clouds are gone.”
And so, as his sister and her BFF appeared and my son complained about how slowly they walked because they were teenagers now, I turned to him and said, “You all good now?”
“Yeah, Dad,” he said. “It’s all good.”
Good is good, I thought. And for the first time in a long time, I looked right at him, and I wasn’t embarrassed to say out loud, “God is good, buddy. That’s all you need to believe right now. And all you have to do is be one of the good guys.”
“Right,” he smiled. “We’re the good guys.” Something we’ve been saying to each other for years apropos of nothing, except that good is good … and we’re the good guys.