The conversation in Episode 47 took a more serious turn as our real-life survivors—guest editors who’d survived cancer, the loss of a spouse, the loss of young children in their church or schools—asked the big question: How to talk to our children about mortality—theirs and ours?
“Tell the truth” surfaced as the consensus. “Be honest.”
But what does it mean to be “honest” with children about death, real-life and afterlife survival? Honesty is shifty. There’s Dramatic Honesty. Verbal Honesty. Honesty-of-the-Situation.
How do you answer when a child asks: “Will you die? Will I die? What happens here—and there?”
Some of us are pretty sure what to say, but some of us aren’t. We’re still working that out.
“I don’t know” felt like an inadequate response, however, when my eight-year-old son who’d recently been diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes asked me, with urgency and suppressed tears, “Is Saturn-Earth real? Because I’m a God there—and if it’s real, I can live forever.”
* * *
Saturn-Earth was the world my son created for himself months before his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis. He’d stapled together, pencil-narrated and crayon-illustrated book after book about this pretend planet and its biomes: its oceans, its desert and mountain regions, its savannahs and rainforests, its flora and fauna.
In particular he wrote about Saturn-Earth’s animals: the saber-toothed bear, the tortoise-shelled, meat-eating praying mantis, the three-eyed frogs and the giant beaked worms and caterpillars. A scientist at heart, he needed proof that his imaginings existed, so he wrote an authority—the Tooth Fairy—and asked her whether Saturn-Earth’s creatures, the animals he’d invented and drawn, were truly real.
Moved by his plea, the Tooth Fairy stayed up way past midnight splicing and dicing his fantastical species. She photoshopped internet-stolen images of saber-toothed tigers and bears into saber-toothed bears; she merged praying mantises and tortoises; she welded together one Saturn-Earth creature after another. Then she printed and slipped the pictures under his pillow along with a few quarters. My son woke up the next morning thrilled with the proof. Saturn-Earth’s animals were real! The Tooth Fairy had provided photographic, incontrovertible evidence.
* * *
“Mom,” he repeated, “Is it true? Is Saturn-Earth real?”
He was exhausted, teary and despondent about this thing. We’d spent the day learning how to prime and program his insulin pump, how to check the tubing for air bubbles, how to practice-insert the needle first into a Raggedy Andy doll, then for real into my son’s skin. He broke down at this point. Unlike Raggedy Andy, he’d wear a pump around his waist, day and night, forever.
Saturn-Earth, real? Clearly, my son had created his own theology because I’d neglected to provide one for him. He lacked an all-in-one mortality-and-immortality framework structured with the right beliefs and doctrines he needed to face the scary realities of juvenile diabetes. I should have paid attention to Oprah’s recommendation and bought that Maria Shriver What is Heaven? picture book and read it to him; I should have searched The Little Golden Books for stories about angels and now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep children whose souls were kept in magical eternal pumpkin shells with silverbells and cockleshells. Or told him about St. Peter keeping the room keys to the Gates-of-Heaven Resort Lodge, where every guest is guaranteed an Edenic waterfall-view balcony room and no soul’s stuck with a window facing the parking lot. Or confessed that his real father’s a God: “Your bio-dad is Poseidon. Immortality won’t be an issue for you.” Or googled the Khan Academy for an algebraic solution.
I was tempted to get all academic-y on my son, to see his question as yet another way of exploring What is the Grass? Better inform him that dying “is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” That death is a metamorphosis into a “far far better place.” I should quote Whitman, Dickens, the Great Books.
He was on the edge, about to lose it any second. Maybe his numbers were off. His blood glucose level could be falling—or rising? We were still new to this. He should prick himself and test. Either way, he needed saving.
“Mom?” he repeated “It’s real, isn’t it? Saturn-Earth?”
“Sure it is,” I answered, warding off his despair. “You’ve seen the animal evidence. You’ve got photographic proof!”
And suddenly he relaxed, relieved that his own vision of the afterlife, Saturn-Earth, wasn’t a lie. He’d live forever, a God among the saber-toothed bears.
And I could breathe easier, too, because validating Saturn-Earth somehow felt like honesty. My son was just writing his own Real Afterlife Survival Guide—as children do—and the most honest thing I could do was to listen, learn, and let him lead me through his savannahs.
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.