I rarely look over old essays I’ve written—and when I do, I usually hate them—but I came across this one yesterday and thought it was timely, given the anniversary of both my Aunt Jean’s passing and the Newtown tragedy.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear my Aunt’s laugh; loud, silly, and best of all, contagious.
December 17, 2012
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. Sitting at the desk in my hotel room, I am haunted by the image of a quiet emergency room, nurses and physicians poised and waiting for injured children who would never arrive because there 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. In her living room, he positioned a large metal cow behind the couch 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 hadn’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. With his usual tact, 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 paused for a moment and agreed that yes, there are children in heaven.
“What kinds of things do CHILDREN do in heaven?”
As soon as he made his First Communion, Jack started to 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. In his own words, “Heaven is high up in the sky. People and God are there. It is a happy place.”
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. Come nighttime, we hope you snuggle underneath thick piles of blankets, and each morning you wake to a heavenly sunrise. We hope there are lots of crunchy Cheez-Its in a bright red box and creamy cold ice cream after dinner. We hope there is Santa.
And enough Wii controllers so you don’t have to share.
For you, we hope there is music and dancing and karaoke machines, and round playful puppies that don’t bark too loud. Also, less errand-running and more outside-kicking-a-ball-running, and s’mores with gooey marshmallows and sticky chocolate on warm summer evenings.
In heaven, 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, we hope the earth looks dazzling with brilliant pinks and greens and blues. Just like Aunt Jean’s kitchen.