Every night, my wife Amy and I take turns lying with our six-year-old son Sam before he falls asleep. It’s his favorite time to ask questions, those particular ones I dread trying to answer.
“Dad, is God real?” Oh boy, here we go.
“Some people think so…” C’mon, don’t be a jerk. Tell him what you think. “I think so.”
“Then why can’t I see God? Is God a person?”
“Well, it’s more like a spirit.”
“So God’s a ghost? God died and now God’s a ghost?”
“Well, no, I don’t mean a spirit like that.” Then what do you mean? You’re losing him.
“It’s like the force in Star Wars.” Idiot!
“But people can’t move things with their mind like Jedi.”
“Well, it’s more like God keeps things together.”
Pause. A long, long pause. I don’t know where to go from here. And then:
“Oh I get it,” Sam says. “The world is in pieces, and God has to hold them all in place or it will all fall apart.”
“Yeah.” I say. “God just keeps it all in place.”
These talks happen a few times a month. I never thought we would be having these conversations so soon, but when Sam’s uncle, my brother Eric, died three years ago, the questions began. At three, Sam’s questions were limited to “Where is Eric?” but over the years his inquiries have deepened and become more unambiguous. Maybe it would have been easier if Eric had been sick, or there had been an accident, but how do you explain suicide to a six-year-old?
The first time he asked about death was one autumn afternoon a few months after that terrible day, Sam wanted to know how Eric died. I told him Eric had a sick heart. Sam seemed suddenly desperate, as if there was something I knew about the world that he also needed to understand. But he was only three, and I was loath to tell him what really happened. Sam next wanted to know where Eric had gone. And it was then I knew I was in trouble.
My relationship with my brother was about as ambivalent as relations between brothers can get. Eric was seven years older than I was, and so the context of our individual lives was always very far apart. When Eric was getting dressed to go on a date, putting on cologne and shining his shoes, I was only eight or nine. When Eric was secretly smoking cigarettes or working on his motorcycle in the garage, I was still playing with my action figures. As we grew up our lives took very different paths. It wasn’t until our mother got sick with cancer that I felt we were finally sharing something as equals. I turned to him for support and advice, and he checked in on me. We reminisced and cried, told embarrassing anecdotes about my mother, and sat for long hours with our father. After she died, as with many families, things eventually returned to their normal patterns. Our familiar distance returned.
I finally pulled myself out of the quicksand that was my mother’s death. The rope that lifted me out of that muck and slime was the birth of my son. It wasn’t as simple as seeing life where before there was death. What ultimately brought me back to solid land was that in the moment that Sam was born, God became real to me again. With Sam, I saw that God was in all things. God was not someone watching over us in heaven. God was in the world.
And then Eric killed himself.
In the months leading up to his suicide, Eric was obviously in a dark place, but when he was with Sam he came alive in a way I had never seen. Eric had raised a daughter of his own, and we communed on all the absurd and magical things that babies bring to the world. Even more than when we cared for our dying mother, as fathers he and I shared something that seemed to finally transcend all our differences. We waxed nostalgic about the toys we had loved and made plans to find them all on eBay one day for Sam: G.I. Joes, Dinky Toys, Snap-Tite models, and all the hundreds of variations of Lego sets. I studied him while he played with Sam. I wanted to learn how he could be so un-selfconscious, let himself get right down on the floor and play.
And right smack in the middle of all this joy and connection and the laughter of my little boy when he would see my brother come in the door, the S.O.B. went and killed himself.
Part of me wanted to retreat into faithlessness. My mother had died naturally, albeit dramatically, by illness, with her husband at her side. My brother ripped himself from the world. He’d been alone, desperate, hopeless, but all I could feel was rage that he would take himself from us, from my family when we needed him most. And all I could think was, What are we going to tell Sam?
For a child, death is simply a kind of transformation. Sam understood that he wouldn’t see Eric anymore, but he wanted to know where Eric had gone. That morning when he first asked, I said something vague and abstract about a person’s spirit living on forever. But how could I talk to Sam about an afterlife and heaven, things I don’t really believe myself? And yet so many unsure parents quickly turn to this idea because we want our children to live in a world where magic and miracles are real, and because we are afraid the truths of the real world will force them to grow up more quickly than we would like. Even after years of studying and writing about religion, I couldn’t do much better.
There was very little in my upbringing to prepare me for this. I was raised in a very secular home, and while we ate matzah on Passover and my brother and I both had bar mitzvahs, Judaism was not a way to make meaning, at least not explicitly. When I was five my grandfather died. My parents felt I was too young to go to the funeral. But even though I wasn’t there I know themen wore yarmulkes, I know my father rent a piece of his clothing, I know kaddish was said. We didn’t observe the sabbath, but I know my grandfather had a Jewish funeral. This is often when we call forth these rituals, to give form and language to something that has left us battered and dazed. But for me, there was nothing, just a sense of emptiness and that strange hidden grief of adults that most children intuit.
As I grew older, through life’s trials and circumstances (you know the ones; drugs, girls, and lots of bad decisions), I found myself seeking a grounded spiritual life where I could stop being such a jerk. I was surprised to find this in the religion that I thought was little more than great jokes and even better chicken soup. But while Judaism offered me a way to pray and to celebrate the seasons, I have had to continue to work through what God is. Most of what I believe is still abstract, vaguely mystical, more questions and than answers. And that’s the way I like it.
So when Sam asked where Eric was, I fell back to that thing that means both so much and so little. I told him Eric was in heaven. But by the time he was six and could interrogate my answers. I realized that a six-year old doesn’t much understand the concept of metaphor.
“Where’s heaven?” Sam asked.
“Well, it’s not really a place.” See how quickly this gets complicated?
“Are there bathrooms in heaven?”
“Well, I don’t think you have to poop or pee in heaven.”
“Can you take your toys there?”
“Sure. Any toy you could ever imagine.”
“Did Eric take his toys?”
And so on.
What do we teach our children about faith when so many of us aren’t even sure what we believe? I can raise my son with a bounty of ritual and tradition, and it’s even possible to do this without having to say much about God. I would like to teach Sam about God because the idea of God is important to me and my life. But as someone who has struggled with my own faith, I don’t want to be dogmatic. I don’t want to tell Sam what he should believe just because I believe it. And even more important, what faith I do have came from experience and years of reflection and meditation. I want him to find his own way, but I would like my own faith to be a beacon for him.
The problem, it would seem, is my faith is not grounded in dogma or literal ideas about God. My faith is rooted in experience, in the narrative of my life and in the stories that give my own abstract ideas color and form. But this is the solution. Stories are what put faith into context. This is what my wife Amy and I do with Sam every night at bedtime. We read stories; myths, fables, and fiction. When we read our children fairy tales and mythology, most kids don’t ask whether they are true or false. Does it matter that most scholars agree King Arthur likely did not exist? The first time I told Sam the story of Excalibur being pulled from the stone, a light went on inside him that has never dimmed. Children draw from myth and fable what they need, extracting the nutrients and energy to keep them growing. And so too with religion. What I have for Sam are the things that others believe and the stories they told to express them. Serpents and floods, the parting of seas and wrestling with angels. It doesn’t matter that things aren’t true in a literal way for them to have meaning and, more important, the power to shape our imaginations.
Judaism, while a religion of law and ritual, is still dependent on story to frame and ground it. Passover is a story we tell each other every year, and it’s a story that has meaning for more than Jews. American slaves clung to the Exodus myth because it told them that the God of the Hebrews is a liberator. Not once, but always. But it wasn’t until I had to try and explain something about faith to Sam that I understood why people frame the world in story. And it wasn’t until the death of a loved one that I realized if it wasn’t for story, I would be lost. Each of our lives, the stories of our lives, is a reflection of the human story.
“Can I see Eric?” Sam asks.
“Well, not with your eyes. But I think if you try hard enough, you can feel Eric is a part of you.”
“Is Eric a ghost?”
“Well, not a ghost, but a spirit.”
“You mean like God?”
“Well, sort of. But more like Eric is a part of God.”
“Are we a part of God?”
“But we’re not dead. Do you see my skeleton sticking out or something?”
I desperately want this conversation to end. It’s time for Sam to go to sleep, I tell myself, but it’s because I don’t have answers. All I have are my own questions, my own doubts, and my own frail faith. I just want to tell him a story. And that, I realize, is always the answer.
“When you were little and Eric would come over, you would literally jump up and down.”
“Remember when he used to pull my socks off halfway?” Sam asks.
“He loved you so much. Sometimes even more than himself.”
“Because you are an awesome kid and Eric was an awesome guy. You were great pals.”
As I say these things I realize this is all I have to know as well. I don’t believe Eric exists in some place called heaven, or even that he exists at all in any real way, but I know that he loved Sam and that every time we talk about Eric, he lives in us. And I can look at Sam the way Eric did. For a short time-when I experienced some of the most treasured moments I will ever have-Eric and I got to be fathers together. Together, for a short time, we looked at each other with wonder at the miracle of this little boy. And one day his love of his uncle would overpower any worries he might carry about the existence of God and heaven.