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?
“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?
Ahh, yes. Those things kids say. Yeesh. I tend to pick up the spiritual things that come my way. Perhaps because that is my inclination, or because it seems to be children’s natural orientation. At any rate I have heard some doozies. Fifteen years as a graduate student in religion have given me a certain pompous authority in matters religious, which has always backfired right in the face of these utterances. Which is as it should be. After all Jesus says we are to be more like children than adults if we are to gain heaven.First, my four-year-old niece many years ago. We were reading a garishly illustrated children’s Bible which showed Jesus walking on water. Did Jesus really do that? she asks me, pointing at the dramatic picture of Jesus aloft upon the waves. Oh yes, I assure her. He could do anything. This is greeted with a moment’s silence. No, auntie, no he can’t, she asserts. Oh, yes, yes he can, I reassure. Auntie, she counters, finally, decisively, Jesus can’t do everything. She pauses thoughtfully. He can’t be bad, auntie. Gulp. Nothing to say to that.Next, my son, when itty bitty. I have just finished a pompous table grace before dinner, ending with the hopefully uttered plea that we might grow in knowledge and love of God every day of our lives. Amen. What? asks my son, blinking. What do you mean? Well, you see Son, I begin, and launch into one of those adultish and far too long explanations of how God is the highest good (okay I admit it wasn’t your average garden variety of adultish, it was more like your basic graduate seminar in general theology adultish) and blah blah blah, etc etc, and so as for me, Son, I will therefore always strive to know and love God more every day. That dreaded moment’s pause. Mom, he says after a bit. Not as for me, he says. I don’t want to love God more every day. Oh, I ask? Oh? Why not? Mom, he says, as for me, I don’t want to because people die.Clunk. Okay sweetie. As it turns out he is now a fervent believer in God but for years he kind of cut straight to the chase and rested in that ugly old problem of evil, of death, of unanswered questions and unjustifiable pain. But when we listen to children–that is when they are given the space to think and to tell what they are thinking–they frequently drop these kinds of little bombs that detonate right in our comfortable lives. By now we have given up the questions, usually, in favor of making that macaroni, of getting that errand done, all the thousand things that need to be done. But grace comes in them! The grace of having all one’s assumptions turned around and upside down, the grace of having to rethink everything anew–from the perspective of a little one, to whom everything is new. In spring may our minds be just as tender as a little child’s, and just as guileless, and may green living shoots sprout where dust and calcified thoughts await strong breezes to blow them away.As always I am grateful for your wonderful listening and wonderful observations, bam!
I love this piece, and photo bam. I am surprised by the lack of collisions caused by children asking heart wrenching questions while we drive and so I will share mine. I was 2 blocks from the school when my 6 year old son asked where babies come from. I asked for more info….great adult method of stalling. He said he wanted to know exactly where the baby came out. So I told him that babies grow in their mom’s uterus or womb and some have to be cut out in an operation called a c-section but that he came out the usual way through the vagina. Well I took a breath and held on for (how did it get in there…) but instead he said…”I have one question, did you wipe off my face!” Well I howled, reassured and wiped my nervous brow. Then I had to tell him not to talk about it with the other children because their Mommies and Daddies would want to talk to them about this. I do remember a patient at CMH asking me about death. He was so afraid to die because he thought they would just throw him in the trash like he did to his “dead toys”. He evenutally did die, but he knew how much he was loved and how the ritual of mourning would be all about him and his incredible and short journey. Kids are very literal in their early years. It amazes me how these enormous questions weigh so heavily on their minds. We just have to remember to keep it simple.
our life path arcs like a parabola. as infants, pure and undefiled, we see the spectrum of life and energy before us and know wholly, but not in humankind’s terms. the infant tries to reconcile their inner knowing with the outer unknown and perhaps this is why their questions tumble out on such staggering terms. in a sense, schooling begins the descent with the learning of worldly manners and means, often at the price of a dimmed brightness; as observed Thoreau, “the mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation.” But the light never dims completely and awakening can come in an instant, as though from the mouths of babes. For how many has the child been the teacher?
ahhh, sweet KD, your remembrance of the boy who feared he’d be tossed out in the trash triggered immediate and deep tears. oh, lord, the stories we were so privileged to be a part of, there in the sacred sanctuaries of 2 west, a place, often, for children on the uncharted road to dying. it is a deep bond that binds us, those of us who witnessed life and death and triumph and, often, heartbreak. i do not know the boy of whom you speak. but i won’t now, ever, forget his story. so many were the questions posed there, among the dearest ever, that have slipped away. so many mornings i wandered home from a long night soaking in the stories, with a vow to write them down, but then i unlocked my apartment door, found a pillow and fell into dreams before the pen could land on paper…….maybe it’s why now i am so intent on writing down. not willing to let another glance of pure unfiltered brilliance escape me yet again.the story of the face wiping is truly hilarious. and thus, as wm ulysses says, the babies they know wholly. if only we could freeze frame the depth of all they know before it slips away in worldliness. and, yes, the child is the teacher……bless you each and every one…..p.s. wm U, good to see you here. you’ve been most missed…..
I have just arrived at the table, have sat listening for two weeks and now I too would like to enter into the conversation. I do not have children of my own yet, but I too have and do walk the halls of CMH and hear the wisdom of children or their parents telling me about the things they have said. Depending on the day, I sometimes don’t want to tell a stranger that I am a chaplain at a Children’s hospital, because the first words inevitably out of there mout are, “Oh, that must be so hard, how do you do that?” I know more about the beauty of life and the spirit at work in the world as I journey with families. I also come home with tears, and my boyfriend consoles me and obliges my need to watch movies like “Cheaper By the Dozen,” where none of the children are walking around with IV trees. I don’t admit those things though when someone just asks the basic pleasantry, “what do you do for a living?” While staying at a bed and breakfast this summer, I made the decision to not tell anyone at the breakfast table that I was a chaplain. Instead I was a kindergarten teacher. Nobody responds to that by saying, “Oh that must be so hard!” Yet, in both places, the hospital and classroom, children are real and authentic and ask the pithy and profound questions moment by moment. I ended chickening out and didn’t go undercover, nor did I reveal my exact occupation.As a girl was going in for emergency surgery, I stood with her family outside of the operating room. The doctor asked her if she had any questions about the surgery. She responded, “No, I’m ok, I already prayed for you and God is going to help you be a good doctor.” This same girl later told her mom, that some days it was hard for her to love people when she was feeling so sick. She had been taught that in heaven she would no longer feel sick. One night she assured her mother that it would be easier for her to love her when she was no longer sick and feeling good in heaven. As her mom recounted this story to me, we both commented that she wasn’t looking for answers from adults. I think more than answers children are looking for people willing to be real with them, moment by moment, whether it be in the hospital room, the back seat of the station wagon, or at the lunch table. From that vantage point, I feel blessed to work as a pediatric chaplain and be with children in all of their authenticity and I am honored that they trust me in the moment.
dear slj, welcome to the table. my arms are tingling as i type. the profound presence you bring here humbles me. you are, by your life’s calling, a gatherer of deepest, purest wisdom. we will be so honored to listen, to pull in close, to give you room and time aplenty to spill your tales here at the table. you have one more place now, when you come home in tears, to tell your stories. we listen closely. we listen well. the stories and the truths that you can bring are, like any treasure, rare. and best viewed when held up to the light, and looked at from all sides. there is illumination within, but we have to raise it up, to catch it in the sunbeam to watch the colors spill. God bless you mightily for what you do, and for what you bring to this ol’ banged-up table……have i mentioned lately that i love each of you who honors all of us with your pulling up a chair?
What precious gifts has been afforded thinker #1 and thinker #2, children at CMH, children in cars , children anywhere where they are placed with adults who listen and listen and learn and respond…..powerful photo image with this story that placed me in the back seat listening and learning and thinking. Thanks for the ride!
Love the photo! The song without words.