questions without answers

hands loosely on the wheel, old blue wagon gliding to a stop, i was blankly looking through the rain-splotched windshield when the little voice behind me shot me this:

“mama, when we die, what will happen? will the world start again?”

he barely gave me time to gulp, time to gather thought, compose an honest answer, when the rat-a-tat continued.

“well, will i die?

“will you?

“when will dada die?”

i could not keep my eyes on the road. i turned and locked on his. he was looking up, looking my way, searching me for answers.

i gave him my best shot. told him straight. yes. yes. and, oh, honey, we don’t know.

all three appended with this attempt at reassuring: not for a long, long time.

then i launched into heaven 101.

praying as i went.

how, i ask you, in the middle of a ho-hum drive to home from hockey, did the most essential questions come popping from his mouth? why not something simple, like, mama, can i have macaroni for my lunch?

macaroni, i could handle. knock that sucker, kaboom, clear out of the park.

camus and sartre, hiding under hockey jersey, i could only fumble, hands barely groped at bat.

it is, i swear, the deepest privilege of being a mama or a papa, or a someone who breathes in sync with little people. being the first pair of ears to hear these questions as they leap from child’s soul. to witness from front row the human mind expand, go deeper, gather goods to last a lifetime.

it is self, unedited. it is child’s quintessential work, exploring the unknown. making sense of everything from how the dandelion blows to what happens when i am no longer. asking giant questions of the universe, and aiming them, first shot out, at the original sounding board of life.

in the case of my little boy, that would most often be me, the one who birthed him, nursed him, rocked him through his early, howling bedtime hours. as i’m still the one he’s with the most hours of the day, i’m pretty much the moving target on which he throws his thinking-child darts.

out of the blue, left field, in the middle of a meatloaf, the questions, they come hurling. there is no agenda in a child’s mind, no timetable for when a question comes. in the seamlessness of mind and soul, the question’s posed in the midst of its creation.

you never have a clue, never get a notice, that your very breath might soon be sucked away by the tender beauty, the monumental power, of the unexpected puzzle of the hour.

it is, for all of us who spend the day in striking distance of a child’s heart, the often-unrepeated script. the lost dialogue you can never seize again. it unspools so suddenly, so without ceremony, you can sometimes only hope that you’ll remember. but then the business of the day shoves the thought aside, and no matter how you try, you can’t retrieve the words, or the magic of the moment.

sure, we sometimes hear the silly lines. used to find them tucked in the pages of the reader’s digest. nowadays, they come in fwd emails, alleged collections of the darnedest things that children say. i often laugh then hit delete.

but what about when the script comes tumbling forth in real time, and you’re the only one who hears. you’re the one who gets to fill in blanks, connect the dots, pick a or b or c, all of the above. take a stab at the deepest truths known to humankind.

because the job i do each day, the job besides the ones i do at home, is to scribble madly, gather quotes, listen closely to each and every word and how it’s said, i have a rather unstoppable inclination to reach for pen whenever quotes unfurl.

especially ones that nearly make me wreck the car (although you might argue that scribbling while trying to hold the wheel only enhances the chance of body shop in my offing).

of all the wise souls i have quoted, and i have quoted many, i don’t think that any lines have done as much for stealing breath as the ones i’ve caught while stirring, steering, scrubbing curly hair.

the jottings that i jot, long ago from thinker 1 and now from thinker 2, are in fact a first-hand record of the unfolding of a child’s soul, even when the questions are hard to hear, the answers hard to come by.

lest you misguidedly surmise that all are thick and dense and heavy, here’s the one he lobbed my way, just yesterday, just an hour after heaven 101, spooning—yes, it’s true—macaroni in his hungry mouth.

“mama,” he began his latest theory, “i think when food goes down there’s like a theme park and it goes down a roller coaster.” uh huh, i utter, in the middle of my swallow.

“is there like an exit for the bad food,” he asks, pointing to his neck. “does it go this way or this way?” he wonders further, making motions east and west from just above that hockey jersey.

i am starting to think, now jotting my own thought, that perhaps the recent lack of sleep (see “the trouble with sleep,” 03.21.07) is doing wonders for my budding thinker.

what are the questions without answers at your house?