My 5-year-old granddaughter has been asking her mother a lot of questions about heaven, not an unusual line of inquiry for children trying to figure out the great puzzle of existence. If adults wrestle with the concept of an ever after, imagine then how perplexing that mystery might prove to our little ones.
"Will I have the same family?" she asks.
"How will I find you when I get there? Will you wait for me in the front?"
And the clincher: "Will I get to take my toys?"
Those questions reminded me of a painful chapter in my own history, a time when my youngest son was full of a similar curiosity about heaven and death and the meaning of life. In fact, he was about the same age as his niece, though his motivation was different. His father, my first husband, had died when he was a baby; and a few years later our son was trying to figure the ins and outs of such a cataclysmic event.
I remember one particular conversation, when he was mulling over what age his father might be. After some back and forth, I explained that age was a terrestrial construct and that one stopped having birthdays in heaven. That threw him for a loop.
"No birthday parties in heaven?" he demanded, his little face scrunched in a frown.
He was devastated. Like most writers who snatch fodder wherever they find it, I would eventually entitle a book of essays "Birthday Parties in Heaven." But today I wonder if it wouldn't have been more merciful to paint a picture my little boy could accept, one of a heaven with toys and cake and Saturday morning cartoons. Besides, do I really know for sure that there are no birthday parties on the other side?
Our concern about heaven transcends age, religion, culture and personal experience. To wonder about it is about as common and ancient a human endeavor as eating, as laughing, as loving. But unlike adults who get all metaphysical with their explanations about paradise, children seem to possess a very concrete image of a place – or is it a state of mind? – that offers a counter weight to the tribulations of earthly life.
When my oldest granddaughters first began wondering about who their late grandfather was and where he might live – he has to live somewhere! – they decided he had taken up residence on the moon, right where they could spot him at night. They gave him a name, too: Moon Daddy. Though older now, old enough at least to understand space travel won't reunite them, they nonetheless cling to the name they adopted at a more innocent time.
Moon Daddy what just the beginning of a lifetime of speculation. Over the years this is what I've heard from some of the tiniest philosophers I know.
– "Heaven has angels who play with you all the time."
– "Abo and Moon Daddy get to do whatever they want."
– "Do you need a rocket ship to get there or can you fly over on your own?"
– "In heaven you float around like a big balloon."
– "Can we all live together in the same house?"
I don't think heaven is something children think about all the time or even often, but it is a subject they consider when someone they know dies. The idea that a loved one hangs out in a place of beauty offers a salve to the sickness that is grief. But what's truly amazing to me is their unshakable belief in something beyond what they can see and touch. Call it faith, call it hope, call it whatever you want.
Too bad that as adults we lose so much of that.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at email@example.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)