Among preschoolers, it’s easy to confuse the literal and the profound. With his pajama top partway over his head, backward and inside out, Dawson might have been asking about the immediate forever — as in, can I avoid bedtime by keeping you here? He might have been wondering whether we would live in this house, this city, this place forever. He could have been thinking about his next birthday, which in his mind would take eons to arrive. Or he might have meant the real forever, the one even grown-ups don’t know how to explain.
His next question made no mistake of where our conversation was headed.
“Does everybody die?”
“Yes, eventually everybody does.”
Silence. More work on the pajama pants. He had managed to wiggle two legs into one hole. When he finally got the legs straightened out, we headed to the bathroom, where he informed me that he needed to poop.
I lifted him onto the toilet and sat down on a stool to wait. A bathroom break is not the best time for reading facial expressions, but his gaze seemed unusually focused on the tattered edge of the bath mat as he asked, “Where do we go when we die?”
Uh oh, I thought, we might have a long night ahead of us. From potty training to lessons in eternity, parenthood offers the ultimate proving ground. And there are so many ways to get it wrong. The bottom wiping I could handle. I was suddenly feeling much less sure about the afterlife part.
“No one really knows, buddy, but our bodies eventually become part of the earth again.” I could feel his skepticism even as the words formed in my mouth.
“But what if we stay inside?”
“You mean after we die?”
“Well, we usually try to put people in places they love, like outside where flowers can grow around them.”
“I don’t want to turn to earth. I would be lonely,” he told me.
Dawson’s next question nearly flattened me. “Do people ever turn to darkness after they die?”
Long pause. “I think it’s more like they turn to light, and spread themselves all around on the earth.”
“I don’t want to turn to light.”
“Okay. What would you want to be?”
“A person. Do you think a person ever turns into a person again?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“Would I be named Dawson if I turned into another person?”
“I think we should name me Dawson. And put a big D on my shirt so everyone knows who I am.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
He nodded and grinned broadly. For the time being, the matter of where we go after we die was settled in my child’s mind. Dawson climbed down from the toilet, hopped onto the stool, pumped way too much soap, and lathered an enormous pile of bubbles in the sink. When he pressed his cup against the faucet, water poured onto the floor. “Whoa, mommy, look! That’s funny!”
I laughed with him and wiped bubbles onto my chin like a beard. He imitated me, shrieking with delight. I straightened out his twisted pajama bottoms and he was off, sprinting into the bedroom. By the time I arrived, he was hanging upside down from the bunk bed he shared with his brother, his blond hair forming an electric halo around his head.
“Should I call you Forever Dawson?” I asked him.
“No, mommy. Just Dawson.”
Two weeks later, we celebrated my mom’s 70th birthday in the small mountain town of Girdwood, Alaska. The party lasted well past bedtime, and my kids were on overdrive after double servings of cake and an active wrestling session with cousins. I’d been trying to get Dawson to sleep for the better part of an hour. After finally convincing him to lie still, Dawson sighed and rolled over. I put my mouth near his ear and breathed loud and deep, inhaling and exhaling like a steam engine. Only after his breath began to echo my own did I know I’d finally succeeded.
As I stood to leave, feeling my way across the dark room, I heard a faint whoo-whoo. I had to strain to pick out the sound through the closed window, the hooting faint and indistinct. But a moment later I heard it again; this time I was certain it was an owl calling. I slipped out of the room and went out to the back porch and sat down. For several minutes, there was nothing. Then suddenly, the bird called directly overhead, startling me with notes so loud and deep I could feel the vibrations in my chest. Whoo, who-who, whoo whooooo.
A moment later, another owl called back, its tone reverberating at a slightly higher pitch from the opposite side of the clearing. I guessed that the second owl was a female. Though males are slightly smaller than their mates, they typically have deeper voices. The pair conversed in the night, the pauses between them just long enough for me to hold my breath with anticipation, wondering each time if it would be the last. By birding standards, this encounter wasn’t a particularly unusual one — great-horned owls are among the most ubiquitous of owls, using diverse habitats throughout most of North America. Still, the fact of sitting with an owl is never mundane, its presence a reminder of all that is magical and mysterious in the dark. As I eavesdropped on the evening chat, I wondered what the birds were telling each other. And I wanted Dawson to hear.
For weeks, Dawson had been begging me to take him owling. His fascination had originated from Owl Moon, a children’s book about a young girl going into the night with her father. In the story, the man calls into the darkness, and an owl calls back. “Let’s go owling,” Dawson would say most evenings after sunset. But owling and bedtime were in direct competition, and so far sleep had won out.
After I listened to the owls for several minutes, I tossed my parenting wisdom to the night and went into my son’s bedroom. He was solidly asleep now, and I had to shake him gently to get any response.
“Dawson, there’s an owl outside.”
He blinked sleepily at me in the dim light from the hallway then closed his eyes again.
“Dawson, an owl!”
This time he rolled away. I almost gave up until I recalled the shine of his eyes when he told me he wanted to go owling. Last try.
“Dawson, if you want to hear an owl, there’s one outside the window.”
Slowly, he sat up, clutching his stuffed bunny to his chest.
“Right out there, I’ll take you.”
Dawson startled when he heard the first hoot, its loudness jarring to his sleepy ears. We sat together on the porch, his stout, pajama-clad body curled on my lap, and let the sound fill our bodies. He smiled each time one of the birds called again, his dark eyes widening. “Owl!” he’d whisper as he gripped my hand tightly. Eventually, his teeth chattered slightly, and I took him back to his bed, tucking his blankets snugly around his shoulders.
If my son asks me again if we might ever turn to darkness, I’ll have an answer for him. Yes, I’ll say. You can become the night that holds an owl in its embrace. You can carry the shadows in the forest, the quiet that is broken only by a deep and resonant Whoo, who-who, whoo whooooo. And I’ll be there with you, reaching for your hand across the starry sky.