Given her finely honed responses, I was surprised one night when I was the one our 6-year-old son awakened after 1 a.m. He whispered, “Dad,” with increasing intensity until I finally stirred. His head was directly in line with mine, and I opened my eyes to see his face inches from my own, a startling apparition only partially illuminated by a little flashlight he pointed toward the floor.
“Hey, buddy,” I whispered, my heart racing. “Everything okay? You all right?”
He stood there quietly for a moment, and then said: “Dad. Does everybody die? You, me, Mom, Dylan, Scout, everybody?”
There was no fear in his voice, just intense curiosity.
I’m a recovering jazz pianist, market researcher and born-again atheist. This was the domain of my wife, a practicing psychotherapist and Jewish mother extraordinaire. I tried to trigger her alert system by jamming my elbow into her back. Her radar was either malfunctioning for the first time in eight years, or she was playing possum.
“Dad!?” he repeated.
I had asked my mother a similar question when I was his age, when the “If I should die before I wake” part of our evening prayer had suddenly loomed large. “Will you and Dad die one day? Will I?” I remember that moment, and her answer, as if it were yesterday. “Not for a very, very long time. Don’t you worry,” she told me. I worried, piled into my parents’ bed, and didn’t sleep well for days. Dad cut the prayer from our evening repertoire.
“Well, yes,” I told my son. Before I could add the reassuring “not for a very, very long time,” he asked a follow-up.
“Everybody? Even worms?”
“Yes.” I realized that adding the addendum about “a very long time” no longer made sense. I pivoted to the “don’t worry” clause when he asked, “What does that mean?”
Hoping for a prompt, I nudged my wife a second time. Still no reception.
“Well, that’s a difficult question. It’s not like saying that two and two equals four, or that your favorite color is red, or . . .”
He cut me off. “So you don’t know?”
I had been briefed and had a whole script prepared for “Where do babies come from,” but nothing on mortality. With an apologetic shrug, I told him that no, I didn’t know. Thinking that additional clarification might ease the blow, I added, “No one really knows.” Our dog and my allegedly sleeping wife both groaned.
I tried to regroup. I knew we were at a pivotal moment at the nexus of faith, family and the meaning of life. This was a time for a father to shine.
We locked eyes, each of us deep in thought, until he broke the silence.
“Can I have some ice cream?”
Mint chip being the better part of valor, I picked him up and carried him back to bed. Then, making an exception because of the gravity of the conversation, I brought him a bowl of ice cream and a glass of water.
“You okay? You want to talk about it?”
“No thanks.” Then, as if reassuring me, he added, “It’s okay, Dad, nobody knows.”
He handed me the empty bowl and then asked for what he called a “short sleep.” I had lain down next to him, and in seconds, he was back to his dreams.
I climbed back into my own bed. My wife asked if our son was okay. I told her how he had faced the haunting question of mortality. I mentioned that my answers may not have been textbook and looked at her with an expression similar to the one my son had given me.
“Hey,” she said. “You did good.”
I lamented that in between “everybody dies, nobody knows” and the ice cream, I hadn’t woven in the part about all of us being around for a very long time.
She added, “You were there for him.”
If I have learned anything in 20 years of parenting, it was that: Above all else, just be there. And a little ice cream never hurts.
Edward Manning is a freelance writer and recovering jazz pianist living in New York.