the next place

If I had to rank the top 5 things that Chicken is most likely to bring up out of the blue, the list would go like this:

1. Candy
2. Tigers
3. Death
4. When will I have to go to the doctor again? And will there be shots? And will I have surgery?
5. The iPad

I'm accustomed to how casually and frequently my four-and-a-half-year-old asks about death. It is STANDARD breakfast chit-chat in our house.

It's not uncommon for children at his age begin to have what teachers and counselors kindly call Big Questions, the kinds of questions that empty parents' scotch bottles and bowels.

What's strange for Chicken isn't the volume of his curiosity; what's strange is that he doesn't know anyone or anything that has died. Oh, and also, the inartful grace and mercilessness of his prose.

He was chasing his brother around our dining room table after dinner a few months ago, giggling wildly. He stopped at my chair, looked up at me with a shining face, and panted, "Every! Day! Is a little! Bit closer! To dying!"

"That's true, baby," I said into my wine glass. He beamed at our dinner companions and took another lap.

Our friends stared.

"That's our Chicken," I said with a wry shake of my head as I emptied the bottle into my glass and excused myself to the bathroom.

I used to go to him with the tender gravity of a loving teacher, the kind who always ends up adopting the orphan at the end of the movie. But now I've developed a much more brisk, businesslike attitude about these fly-by existential questions.

1. Acknowledge the devastating bomb of his awareness of his own inescapable mortality. But, you know, breezily: "Yep!" "Nope!" "I dunno!" "Good question, kiddo!"
2. If pressed, place a gentle hand on his shoulder, smile at him, and say, "That's something that a lot of people think about, but it's not something we can control. Like the weather!"
3. If still pressed, pull him into lap, hug him tight, and remind him how old his grandparents are, with cartoonish expressions of shock and amazement at the gross tonnage of their years. Say, "Oh, we've got tons of time."

___
Tonight:

Me: You done brushing your teeth?

Chicken: Yep!

Me: OK, go hop into bed with Tygey-Tyg and I'll be right there to--

Ryan, whispering: He's already had three stories.

Me: -- tuck you in and kiss you good-night!

Ryan and I discreetly fist-bump.

Chicken: When are you going to die, Mommy?

Me: I dunno!

Chicken: Will it be after I'm already an old guy?

Me: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Chicken: Will it be when I'm 18?

Me: Oh, you'll be much older than that. Remember babe, this is something a lot of people think about, but we can't control it. Like the weath--

Chicken: -- So when I'm 20?

Me: Well... I'm 32, and I still have my Mommy and Daddy.

Chicken: Oh!

Me: And Granddaddy? He's 62, and he still has HIS Mommy and Daddy. SIXTY TWO!

Chicken: Wow!

Me: Yeah, so you might be a Granddaddy yourself before I even think about going.

Chicken: Okay.

Me: Oh, yeah. We've got TONS of--

Chicken: But where do you go when you die?

Me: Wow.

Chicken: Where?

Me: Well... nobody really knows.


___


I talked to my sister about loss today, a subject that she's precociously weary of. Still well shy of 40, she's buried two daughters that she picnics with on their birthday.

She said she doesn't believe in bad luck, that she believes there's a plan.

I said, I believe in bad luck. I believe in chaos.

She said, I guess I think of bad luck as Satan wandering aimlessly around the Earth.

I get an image of Satan as Jeremy Irons in a fedora and linen pants, strolling an open-air market in Italy, dropping rat pellets in the rice baskets as he asks the kerchief-clad farmer's wife "Dov'è il bagno?" Toppling crates of homemade wine in unlabeled, foggy, old bottles with one hand, as he takes a selfie with the other.

Her son asks a lot of questions about death, too. On the day he was born he'd outlived his sisters, and in our family we don't hide our girls. There's no reason we should.

Months ago my sister recommended a book called "The Next Place."

It's vague, she said, but comforting and peaceful. It doesn't ever say Heaven or anything, it might be nice for you and Ryan, since Ryan isn't religious.

I'll take a look at it, I said.

I meant to, but I wasn't sure if Chicken would be comforted by the book or haunted by it. After all, if someone took the time to write a book about The Next Place, that means...

Months later, just a couple of days ago, I found a copy of The Next Place for $2 at the used bookstore. Not sure, I bought it.

___


Me: Oh, yeah. We've got TONS of--

Chicken: But where do you go when you die?

Me: Wow.

Chicken: Where?

Me: Well... nobody really knows. But it's funny you should ask, I just bought this book that Aunt Sarah recommended...

I read him the book.

It is soothing in its abundance of abstract nouns - warmth, love, care, freedom, comfort. It is problematic (at least for Chicken) in its illustrations.

Chicken:
So
when you die
you turn into a bird and fly into a rainbow.

Me:
No.
I mean
maybe.
I don't know.
I've never done it.


Chicken:
So
when you die
you fly into the sun
and it spins you around.

Me:
No.
I mean
maybe...
Again.
Never done it personally.

I think when he asked me, "Where do you go when you die," and I responded, "You know, I've got a book about that," he was expecting me to return with a Lonely Planet Guide to the Afterlife, complete with taxicab recommendations, hotel rankings, and the best place in Heaven for paella.

But instead I came back with The Next Place: a perfect book for the child. And a head-scratcher for the 40-year-old cynic that lives in his brain, chewing a toothpick and squinting at news headlines wondering, "Sure, but what about the commensurate population growth? That number means nothing in a vacuum."



(Close to tears, he asks, in a voice that's the top of his range,
the voice you only use when you're trying not to cry)
But
how will I carry your love with me
into The Next Place
if I leave my mind and body behind
in my life?


He is both 4 and 40; he holds the candle up to the darkness with the arm of a man, but shrinks away from the immovable stone wall with the panic and denial of a boy.

He yearns for a simple, magical answer, and then he side-eyes it to death.

And that's what's so hard about this topic with him - if I answer with genuine uncertainty, because as an adult I know what's unknowable, then the child inside him continues to chew his lip, close to tears, unable to sleep for fear of waking up motherless.

For that child, my inability to answer the question IS an answer - my silence is a sentence. If I am vague, it's because the real answer is too terrible to say.

But on the other hand, if I simply answered, "Heaven," the man inside him would probably say... actually, I don't even have to guess, because I did end up saying Heaven tonight, and this is what happened:

Chicken: But what is The Next Place?

Me: Well, it's... it's Heaven.

Chicken: Heaven?

Me: Yes, it's the place your soul goes after you pass on from this place.

Chicken: So The Next Place, after life, is Heaven?

Me: Yes.

Chicken: But... I'm not sure I believe in Heaven.

Me: That's okay. A lot of people have questions about Heaven.

Chicken: But then what's The Next Place if it's not Heaven for people who have questions about Heaven? And where is your soul? Is it in your lungs? I can't see it.


___


After 45 minutes and repeated reminders that:

a) Ryan and I will happily talk to you about this any time you're thinking about death. This is an okay thing to think about and talk about

and

b) No but seriously, look how old your grandparents are. THEY ARE SO OLD. We've got time, kid,

I kissed him good-night and left the room to pour a drink and take a shower.

10 minutes later, I opened the door wide again. Our bedroom door is off, and it won't stay open. Gravity, after all, is both democratic and omniscient.

As soon as you pass through, the door begins to close again.

Chicken was already deeply asleep, his drool darkening my pillowcase.

I curled up in bed next to him and his eyes opened but did not focus. He whispered, "Can I keep you forever?"

"Yes," I answered, immediately, truthfully, in tears.

The bedroom door clicked closed.

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