I’m writing this post from a hotel room in Danbury, Connecticut, just miles away from the scene of Friday’s brutal Newtown school massacre. Unconnected to the tragedy, I am here because my dear Aunt Jean died unexpectedly this week.
On Thursday my aunt passed away in Danbury Hospital, the very hospital that went into lockdown and cleared its trauma unit early Friday morning in preparation for victims of the shooting. I am haunted by the image of a quiet emergency room, with physicians poised and waiting for injured children who would never arrive. Who were beyond saving.
Aunt Jean was my father’s youngest sister, the last in line of four children. She was whimsical and spontaneous and ridiculously funny. She painted each of her kitchen cabinets a different pastel color according to how the sunlight shined through the windows, and the entire room glowed with lively hues. She positioned a large metal cow behind the couch in her living room so he looked like he was peering around the corner as you passed by.
Holiday meals rarely made it to the table earlier than 8:00 pm when Aunt Jean hosted, because laughter and conversation and stories were always more important to her than gravy and mashed potatoes.
I haven’t seen her in a few years, because my life with five kids brought me to New Hampshire and her life with her own family kept her in New York. But from time to time I would imagine here there, safely tucked in her house with the peeking cow, the same way parents in Newtown imagined their kindergarteners safely tucked behind their desks on Friday morning.
On Friday evening Joe and I decided not to share the news of Newtown’s tragedy with our kids. We figured if they asked questions about the heartbreaking event, of course we’d answer them carefully and honestly. But I didn’t want to ask them to try to make sense of something I can’t understand myself. Particularly Jack. Between his anxiety and tendency to perseverate on things he can’t process, we’d be lucky if we ever got him to go to school again.
Instead, as we waited for the pizza delivery guy to bring dinner, we explained how Mommy’s aunt died, how I would need to travel home to be with my family. As usual, Jack parsed the situation down to the basics; “Your aunt was ALIVE. And now she’s DEAD.” I started to explain to him that people usually make such statements with a little more finesse and compassion, but he continued. “She is in heaven. And now there are CHILDREN in heaven.” I agreed, yes, there are children in heaven, but I did not probe further.
“What kinds of things do CHILDREN do in heaven?”
Jack’s been struggling to come to terms with the concept of heaven and the afterlife for quite some time now. Every once in a while he’ll ask us what heaven looks like, how far away it is, if he’ll return to earth again. Lacking clear answers ourselves, we’ve always encouraged him to consider his own image of heaven and eternity, to imagine for himself what it looks and feels like.
To Jack, heaven is a home in the clouds beyond our horizon, a home you travel to when your time in our world is finished. It’s a place to reunite with friends and family from years past, and together you watch the earth as it continues to spin and rotate and live.
But on Friday he wanted to know more; he wanted to know what a child would do there, how someone small and vulnerable and young like himself would fill their days and nights.
So, as we finished our meal and I wiped down the counters, we talked about life and death and eternity. We did not mention things like massacre and murder and mental instability, instead we talked about what heaven looks like. By this point three more boys and a girl had joined the conversation, and together we imagined what sorts of things we hoped are in heaven for small children who are whisked from our earth too soon.
To the children of Newtown, our family hopes that your new home in the clouds is full of people and laughter and joy. That come nighttime, you snuggle under thick piles of blankets that hold you tight in your bed, and that you wake to a heavenly sunrise each morning. We hope there are lots of crunchy Cheez-Its in a bright red box and creamy cold ice cream after dinner.
Hopefully there are enough Wii controllers so you don’t have to share.
We hope there is music and dancing and karaoke machines, and round playful puppies if you wish. And there’s more outside-running than errand-running. May you continue feel the warmth of your mother’s last hug and your father’s tender kiss, until finally you meet again.
And from where you run and jump and play amongst the fluffy white clouds, I hope the earth looks dazzling with brilliant pinks and greens and blues. Just like Aunt Jean’s kitchen.