Every night at dinner, we discuss the good things that happened in our day. Austin usually tells us about something that happened at with his friends at recess. Claire often shares about the musical (it is a very big deal in fifth grade.) Tommy sometimes can’t think of what to say, so we all try and ask him about the things we imagine are happening in kindergarten.
The other night we were all sharing, and everyone had talked besides Tommy. He sat there, clearly thinking about what to say. Then, out of the blue, he said, “I wonder who will die next in our family? Probably Grandpa Tom!”
“Tommy!” Claire said, horrified, while my father laughed.
I tried not to overreact. Claire and Austin never would have said such a thing when they were five, because, of course, they never thought about death at that age. But Tommy lives in our house, the house where we now talk frankly about death.
“Tommy, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” I said. “We don’t want Grandpa Tom to die.”
“Well, if someone has to die, I hope it’s me first,” my dad said, still laughing. “But I don’t plan on dying anytime soon.”
“I want to die,” Tommy said.
“Tommy!” Claire said again, even more horrified. “Don’t say that!”
“Claire is right,” I said. “We don’t want you to die, Tommy.”
“But if I die, I would go to heaven.” Tommy said. “Then, in heaven, I could meet JESUS!”
I thought about what to say next. “Who else could you meet in heaven?” I asked.
I laughed. “Yes, you might meet Mary, Jesus’s mom. But who else is up in heaven?”
Tommy thought for almost a minute. Claire and Austin tried to give him nonverbal cues, mouthing “DAD” silently.
“Grandpa Tom’s brother, Fred?” he asked, with a confused look on his face.
Everyone laughed. Why wasn’t Tommy getting this? “Yes,” I said, “Fred is in heaven. But who else could be there?”
He looked at me for an answer. “Here’s a hint,” I said. “Who in our family died?”
“Oh!” he finally said, “I would see dad in heaven!”
Now everyone was laughing with relief. Tommy remembered his dad! Even at five years old, he understood that forgetting his dad was pretty major. “I love dad!” he said. “I want to see him again!”
“I know baby,” I said, “but not for a long, long time. He wants you to stay right here, with us.”
Tommy smiled, and everyone else at the table laughed at the details he gave about what heaven would be like.
Behind him, an old photo hung on the wall. It was a photo of the five of us. In it, Tommy looks up at his dad as the rest of us stare into the distance.
The look in Tommy’s eyes in that photo is a look of wonder – a look he gave his father many times. That boy adored his father, and I know the feeling was mutual.
So while I don’t know what happens when we die, I certainly hope that Shawn is out there somewhere in the spirit world. And whatever that spirit world is – heaven or something else – I know that if Shawn is there, he’s acting as Tommy’s guardian angel in every way he can.
Even if his son can’t always remember his name at the dinner table.