When my son Lexington was 3, we gradually changed our co-sleeping habits. After a few months, we developed a ritual that satisfied our need to connect no matter what, every day. Each morning around 6:50 a.m., he greets with me a smile, "Hello, Mommy!" Then, he lies next to me for a few minutes before the day begins. Usually, these moments are occupied with treasured silence. Every evening at 8:30 p.m. he crawls into my bed for exactly 10 minutes of snuggle time before he marches to his top bunk. At night, he feels free to ask me the darkest questions.
When he was 5, he started asking about death. I told him that most people live until they are old and then they die. He asked me, "When will I die?" I replied, "Maybe when you are 99 or 100." I wanted the notion of mortality to feel abstract and distant.
During the day, he focuses on school and playtime. At night, in bed alone with me, he usually resumes soul-stirring conversations. It took him a few months to realize that one of his favorite people in the house—my boyfriend's dad—was the oldest. He asked me, "Is Louis going to die next?" I answered, "I don't know when anyone is going to die."
Weeks later, exhausted from the constant mortal chats, I heard myself let the word "heaven" slip off my tongue as a catch all. I am not a believer and I hated myself for creating a fairy tale. I now realize that maybe religions were born out a need to answer children's core questions. The next time he asked me where dead people go, I told him the truth: "Usually, we bury them in a cemetery, but they never come home. We miss them."
When he was 6, he realized the worst thing of all. During snuggle time, he held my hand like he did when he was a baby and said, "When I grow up, you'll be old?" I corrected him—I would be older. The next night, he asked the follow up question, "When I grow old, you'll be dead?" I squeezed him tight and calmly said, "One day, I will die. No matter when I die, you will be OK. And, I will always love you."
Somehow, my love for him felt permanent. After I am long gone, whenever he misses me, it will be a direct result of all of the support and energy that I have deposited into his being since birth.
Still, during the day, he talked about trains, Spongebob and recess. At night, he continued to dance with death in his head. For weeks, he zeroed in on possible causes, "If a shark bites my arm off, will I die?" Another night, he asked me, "How many lives do you have left?" I said just one. He told me that we'll have to get me some more.
One of my bonus daughters piped up during breakfast, "Maybe we should make Lexington talk about something else." I answered that parenting is not controlling your child's thoughts and definitely not their questions. I let Lexington take Bertie The Bus with him everywhere for two years. I think I can give him a little while to figure out the meaning of life.