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.
Is anyone else searching for and finding meaning in everyday occurrences?

Is anyone else reading signs from the universe in the wet leaves on the ground?

Does anyone else need a laugh?


5 Moments From The Past Week That Have Fed Me

Water metaphors and shower poetry ahead.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


1.

Chicken spilled a cup of water


and the puddle spread like a sinister algae bloom,
instantly enormous,
seeming to grow more and more as it raced, unhindered
to the edge of the table

but it did not spill.

We thought that was going to be really bad
and we were ready
but the force of surface tension
outmatched my personal sense of doom.

The water did not want to spill.



2.

I couldn't sleep for three nights
and then I met this voice in my head
that sounded reliable.
It spoke to me and said,
"In my nonmedical opinion
it is perfectly okay
and even a good idea
to drink too much
this week."


3.

I turned the hot handle on full
and it squeaked the way Hollywood sound editors think a shower knob should.

I looked around the room for a towel.
I looked in the closet for a towel.

How can it be possible
that every towel in this house is dirty?

I guess I put off laundry a day too long.

Instead I used all these hand towels,
once folded,
now folded-smashed
like cold enchiladas that need reheating.

They were comfortable in the back of the closet,
and not at all accustomed to this kind of work.

I dripped on the floor
and it took longer
and made me madder
but the hand towels worked.

It was not what the hand towels
thought they were made for
but it turns out
they did just fine.

so what I'm saying is
citizens are like hand towels
is what I'm saying


4.

Watch Apollo 13 with the idea that Gary Sinise is HRC.

Ken Mattingly, the original command module pilot on Apollo 13, was grounded only days before the mission because NASA found out he'd been exposed to the measles.

He must have been devastated, watching that ship blast off without him, after spending his whole life making decisions engineered to take him to the moon.

But because it did, he was here on the ground.

Because it did, he was there to guide it back home again.


5.

Buster and I went to the store.

At checkout, we saw a bald man with a notably tall forehead.

The man was wearing a beige turtleneck that was extra-bunchy.

Buster pointed to this man and said, "Who's that penis?"

"What?"

His finger remained outstretched.

"Who's that penis?"

I looked.

And then I ran.

Just when you started to think that joy was gone from this Earth.

Who's that penis?

Nailed it.


This afternoon I went to the movies.

I bought one ticket to Doctor Strange, and I went into the theater 15 minutes early with a copy of Vanity Fair.


not because
comics
but because
cumberbatch


As I walked in, I smelled a man sitting in the first row of the stadium seats - body odor, days of it, and bad breath. Homeless.

I picked the rearmost row of the first section of seats - I like to be close to the screen.

As I settled in with my magazine, I smelled him again. He'd moved down to my row, and was now sitting just two seats away from me. Oh boy.

As I flipped through my magazine, I saw him unzip his backpack and pull out a stack of plastic-wrapped magazines. That better not be porn.

He said, "Excuse me? Have you seen this movie yet?"

I pretended I hadn't heard him.

He asked me again, and I looked over at him. The plastic-wrapped magazines weren't porn. They were, of course, comic books.

I replied, "Nope, first time." It had, after all, opened today.

I gave him a quick, closed-mouth smile.

He said, "This is my second time!" And flashed a huge grin, a number of black gaps in his smile. I said "Cool," and returned to my magazine.

A few minutes passed. I wasn't reading my magazine. I was thinking about this man.

___

I stopped talking to him for two reasons: Because whenever strange men talk to me I am waiting for either a proposition or a sales pitch, and because he smelled bad.

In the silence I'd made for myself, I reviewed everything he'd said to me and everything he'd done, and all of those things went into one of two columns: Reasons To Avoid, and Reasons To Engage.

Reasons to Avoid:

He moved to my row after I'd already sat down.

He is sitting between me and the exit.

He smells bad.

He might be trying to sell those comic books.

He's a man.


Reasons to Engage:

He hasn't tried to talk to me once since that first attempt.

He accepted my shutdown and didn't press it.

He saw that I wanted to be left alone, and he left me.

He's sitting there flipping through the comics that he packed in his backpack, probably this morning, probably carried them around all day, and he's grinning.

He seems really excited to be here.

He probably wants to share this experience with somebody.

I'm somebody.

He's somebody.

___


I closed my magazine, turned to him, and asked, "So, are those Doctor Strange comics?"

They weren't. They were 20 other comics starring 20 other characters, the only one of which I'd ever heard of was The Punisher.

He told me all about them. He told me all about his collection. He asked me if I read comics. I said no.

He asked me if I'd seen the Marvel movies. I said I had seen a lot of them. We started talking about the movies.

We agreed that Avengers: Age of Ultron was really thought-provoking. We both loved Guardians of the Galaxy because the heroes were so scrappy and marginalized. That was his word, marginalized. When the lights went down, he leaned over the seat and whispered, "There's a Guardians 2 preview for this movie... you're gonna love it."

The light on the movie theater screen reflected in his glasses and I saw his lenses were strong; the air behind them swam. I saw his lenses were clean.

We watched the movie without talking. As soon as the end credits rolled, he looked over and flashed a thumbs-up. "So? What did you think? Wait, wait, wait, there's a middle credit scene and and end credit scene. They're AWESOME."

We watched those too.

I told him that if he liked Benedict Cumberbatch he should check out the BBC's Sherlock series with Martin Freeman. He said, "Martin Freeman? OH! He had a part in Captain America Civil War! I liked him, man."

We walked out of the theater together. He still smelled terrible, but I probably do too. I recently switched to organic deodorant (a fear-based choice after I learned something about PARABENS, but I have to make another fear-based choice back to Lady Speed Stick because I'm afraid that people will think I'm homeless, too, the way I smell by 3:00 every day.)

We got to the entrance of the theater and I stopped by the ticket booth. He stopped, too. "Are you walking out?"

I smiled. "Yeah, I am. But I don't really know you, so I'm not going to walk out to a parking lot with you. I mean... I've gotta be safe."

He smiled too, and smacked his forehead with an open hand. "Of course you gotta be safe. Well..." and he finished his thought about how you can't really trust the critics and I should really see Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad because the worlds were really well-rendered, and then he said, "It was really nice to meet you Katie."

"You too, Keith."

He walked off toward the bus station.

I waited a few minutes, then walked to my car.

___


The world is full of nervous people who need space to feel safe.

The world is full of nice people who want to connect.

The world is full of interesting people who stink.

Have a good weekend, everybody.
I've had a whole pot of french press and now I've given myself 30 minutes to write and publish a blog post before I go wake up Buster and pick up Chicken from school and then come home and bake banana bread because NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!

And sometimes you just have to put your head down and go, bitch, go. That's the theme of this 30-minute post: Just hunker down and get it done.

Q: What's the secret to motivating yourself to take 2 kids to the grocery store in the pouring rain?

A: Be out of both fruit and milk (2 of the 3 food groups in my house, the third food group being of course cheese quesadillas). Have literally no other time that you can shop for food.

The secret of my motivation is "lack of options," and a kind of willed deafness to the voice in my head that says "Oh, no, Katie. This is going to suck."

You know that voice - it's the "Ew, honey, your life should be funner than this" voice.

It's the one that tells you to walk out when the dentist is running 8 minutes behind schedule, the one that says, "8 minutes! This is RIDICULOUS! You showed up ready for a cleaning and it's THEIR fault you have to go to Starbucks and Nordstrom Rack instead."

It's the voice that Juliet drowned out when she was like "O happy dagger, this is thy sheath..." and the voice was like "GIRL YOU ARE 15 YEARS OLD AND PARIS IS HELLA CUTE PUT DOWN THAT DAMN KNIFE," and she was like "Hummina hummina hummina hummina I'm not trying to heeeear youuuuuu because I know you're riiiiiight so I'm just gonna staaaaaaab me real quick!"

It's the voice that's like, "Don't do laundry. Watch Gone Girl," and then the other voice in your head, the one that's like the Put Your Head Down and Get Shit Done voice, says, "You can totally start a load of laundry and then get the clean laundry and fold it while you watch Gone Girl," and then the first voice comes back all slinky like, "Ooooooor you could just NOT... and watch Gone Girl. Oooh look... the couch has a fleecy blanket on it already..."

(PS - how many dollars you wanna bet me that when Ryan reads this blog post he does not understand the concept of the dueling voices, but that when my mom friends read this blog post they are like OBVIOUSLY there are dueling voices?)

As I pulled the car into a spot blessedly close to the entrance, the pouring rain more of a roar than a patter on the roof of my car, I actually felt the shadow of that voice fall across my mind.

Oh, no, Katie... this is going to...

I KNOW, okay? I know it's going to suck. But we have no bananas and no milk and they already had quesadillas for breakfast so...

I shut that voice down. I threw the car into park, twisted the keys out of the ignition, and turned around to my boys to seal my fate. "You guys want to get some yogurt raisins while we're in there?"

Once yogurt raisins were on the table, there was no way I could back out. We did it. On this day, we grocery shopped in the rain. And lived to tell the tale.



#victoriousbananas


I keep thinking that a day will come when I no longer congratulate myself for accomplishing the daily, necessary chores of a fully-functioning adult parent. I keep thinking that I'll wake up one morning without needing credit from the Internet for both doing the dishes AND THEN wiping out the sink.

But it's hard to ignore the feeling of triumph when I look down at that shining stainless steel. It's hard not to feel like a hero when I dash through the parking lot with rain curling my hair and dampening the hems of my jeans, just to get a bunch of bananas, a carton of milk. Oh, and yogurt raisins.

I've grown weary of the "Stay at Home Moms are Superheroes" cliche, because it's so common now that it reminds of me the line in the Incredibles when Elastagirl tells Dash that everyone is special, and he responds, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

If every mom is a hero, and every day she saves her own precious world, then what's so special about that?

Don't Hero Moms need people who aren't heroes to compare ourselves to, to feel stronger than? Don't we need an enemy or at least an ordinary schlub to outpace humbly in public, and with a swagger when we retell the tale to our husbands in the kitchen that night?

Dash's point is that is everyone is special then nobody really is, and I'm applying that concept to maternal heroism by asking, "if every mom is a hero, then is any mom a hero?"

The answer is yes, of course, yes - because we DO have the enemy, the ordinary schlub to outpace, to defeat. In fact, you've already met her, just a minute ago, just a few paragraphs ago.

She's that voice. That "Oh, no, Katie, this is going to suck" voice. SHE is the villain we have to overpower each time the sky opens up and the empty milk carton rattles in the fridge door and she unfurls in our heads and says, "Oh honey... look at that storm outside. You don't need to go right now..." even though yes, if you're going to have milk, you need to go RIGHT NOW. You actually need to go five minutes ago.

She's the siren who calls us to the couch when the kid's lunch needs to be packed. She's the cold-eyed devil on our shoulders whispering, "you don't have to brush his teeth every night..." And maybe she doesn't mean to destroy us; maybe her intention is just to give us a break. But the path of a champion is steep and lonely, and there are some parts of parenting that are just going to suck. And still have to be done. Every. Single. Day.

The heroic part is the choice we make to clean the sink even though nobody is coming over. The heroic part is the work we do that will never be recognized unless we brag about it, which, okay, we do sometimes. The heroic part is how many times a day we actively choose to make our lives harder and our selves more depleted, how often we willingly draw from our reserves even when the warning lights start to blink. The heroic part is when we sit, dripping, in the driver's seat, not having left the driveway yet, and the boys could go right back inside and watch a Dora and you could just curl up with them, and zone out for awhile, but instead you start the car.

It is hard to describe the paradox of how silly I feel when I write about buying milk in such grand terms, and how true it feels to write about buying milk in such grand terms.

But either way, it's 2:05 pm, which means my 30 minutes are up, and it's time for me to wake up Buster, load him into the car, pick up Chicken from school, come home again and bake banana bread. It's time for me to put my head down and go, bitch, go.

this picture is the part
at the end of the credits for the avengers movie
that like gives a teaser
for the next movie
so
just like imagine ultron's voice saying
"oh but Katie
you don't have to do the dishes
right
now..."