Whichever direction I drive in when I leave my home I invariably drive past a cemetery. That is to say, there is a number of cemeteries around and whichever direction I drive in I will pass one of them. It’s not as if there is only one cemetery that I go out of my way to pass no matter the direction. Neither is there a ‘floating’ cemetery that plants itself by the side of whichever road I travel.
That would be weird.
There’s a fairly large cemetery off of Oregon road, near Peekskill, NY. We pass it often. Usually we pass it slowly. We pass it slowly because Oregon is a two lane route from our small town to the bigger town nearby. It has a 30 mph speed limit that many people take very seriously. More than a few drivers err on the side of extra caution and stay below 30mph – like 25 or 20. These drivers annoy me to death… pun intended.
Some of the graves in the cemetery have glow-in-the-dark crosses. Yes, that’s right, I said that some of the gravestones in the cemetery have glow-in-the-dark crosses on them. When we drive past the cemetery at night, those glow-n-the dark crosses seem to be hovering over the graves they are marking.
Some kids get creeped out by them. I am one of those kids. So is my son.
At the time of this story, my son was 5 or 6.
The idea of the grave and the gravestone piqued his magical curiosity. We did not talk about cemeteries much. He had not yet needed to attend any funerals. He was not acquainted with death, not up close. And on this day, a very slow driver in a rage-red, rusting Honda Accord was causing a long line of very annoyed drivers cars to have to stare longer than they wished to at the cemetery and the gravestones.
Everything about a cemetery is quiet. Nothing speaks. Flowers that are planted grow silently. The markings and dates on each gravestone says everything that the stone has to say. The graves age is represented in the fragility and thinness of each stone, the way they lean, or don’t, and in which direction. It’s easy to get sucked into its solemn serenity.
A woman was kneeling by a grave. She wore a hat and was patting the ground. I was staring at the red Honda up ahead, wondering when its driver would discover the gas pedal and speed the hell up.
My 6 year old son spoke to me without looking away from the cemetery.
“Why do they have those stones there?” he asked as we trolled past.
“Those stones are markers for where people are buried,” I explained. I wasn’t sure if t for my six year old. Was there a right way to field that question from a curious, sensitive boy?
And by right, I mean, was I doing a good job as a dad? Or was I going to fail?
This seemed like one of those key ‘daddy’ moments. A pre-‘Father-Son’ talk about death. Like a warm up talk before we had to have a more serious talk, like if somebody we knew actually died.
I wasn’t ready for the warm up. I could have used a warm up talk for the warm up talk.
“Are they buried in the ground?”
“Yes. They are,” I said. I explained that people can be buried in the ground, but that there were other ways of sending someone off into the next world or the next , but in a way, we all end up returning to the ground somehow. That was too much information for his young mind. They take in so much. So much.
I wanted the red Honda to move. I wanted to get to where I was going.
“What’s heaven?” he asked, throwing me a typical curve ball.
Our family does not do religion. I was raised a Jew but stopped practicing the religion due to issues with hypocrisy between the behavior and beliefs that were preached and the behavior and beliefs that were actually practiced. And it has occurred to me since that the practice of religion - any religion - is regarded as something to be attained in time. It seemed to me that ost people- in fact just about everybody - was content to take a really long time on that one. So for me, and for my family, being Jewish is about lox and bagels, and spending time with those we love.
My wife had no religious foundation as a child. Her father rejected religion while her mother practiced quietly, almost secretly, on her own. It was not passed on as a practice to my wife or perhaps she just chose to leave it behind. Consequently, we did not raise our children under any religious faith or guidelines. We taught them to be good people and to treat others with respect and kindness. We never spoke about a heaven or a hell. So my son had no clue what heaven was, but he had heard the term. He knew that Heaven and death were related.
“Heaven is a place that some people believe we go after we die.”
He got quiet. He watched the cemetery, watched the woman pat the ground, her head bowed, her body shaking. He watched the woman rise and stand. Birds flew over the cemetery, circled around a group of tombs, and settled in. We had moved less than a mile in this conversation so far. Worst drivers, ever!!
He remained quiet; pensive, actually. My son has a look, it’s a long stare, when he’s pensive.
“Daddy… is heaven underground?”
Was it? I thought Hell was underground. But then if I told him that Hell was below and Heaven was above, how much sense would it make to a little boy that they put people under the ground so that they could rise above it?
At this point, I had given up on the traffic and my desired arrival time to 'there'. I listened to what my little boy was asking me. I came up with an answer I thought I and he could both live with.
“Heaven is wherever you want it to be, Son.”
My son nodded, still pensive. he got it.
At that moment, Heaven, for me, was being in that car with my son, stuck on a two-lane road. That red Honda that I was silently cursing had provided me with a great Daddy moment.
We never know what kinds of questions monopolize our children’s minds. As they grow older, beyond the elementary school years, their thoughts and curiosities don’t diminish. They change, for sure, But, they do not weaken in scope or depth. We must be ready to have those Daddy (or Mommy) Moments no matter how old or young they are.
To do that we must be present, and have our minds and hearts open.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a writer and an educator. Most importantly, I am a father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and written screenplays, articles, and this blog. I write about kids in crisis. I write about parents trying to figure it all out. I write about learning from failure and the resulting successes.