Content warning: Themes of death
1. Tell the truth
Be gentle but honest. This is your son's first time experiencing death, his only rodeo.
He is five years old, wild-eyed and sugar-crazed and baby-toothed. A sweet boy. He doesn't complain about going to church or preschool. He picks up the toy cars in his room without being asked, lowers the seat after using the toilet. Some days you feel as though you've won the lottery.
At night, he helps you say grace. Eyes closed, hands clasped over a plate of hot dog mac and cheese, he prays for God to watch over him and you and your husband and Waffles, his favorite teddy bear, though sometimes you wonder if he means 'waffles' the food. Once, he even prayed for God to watch over your favorite music group, even though he often refers to Queen as "old people music."
If he is mature enough to have this opinion, he is mature enough to handle the truth.
2. Tell most of the truth
On the other hand, he's still the boy who cried last Easter when he caught you crouching beneath the rosebush, depositing a bright blue egg in a patch of soil.
And again, when you were both playing Chutes and Ladders and he landed on the final chute, the one that jettisoned him back to the start of the game board.
And again, last week, when he saw your husband's face plastered on a news report and proceeded to pound the TV until the screen fizzled with static because he thought his father was trapped inside.
So maybe you only need most of the truth.
Because you'd had to fib a little back then, didn't you, when you explained over cookies and milk that you were helping out the Easter bunny because one of his eggs had hatched the very moment he stepped foot on your lawn, and he had to hurry off to parent the bunny hatchling? Or when you spent six-and-a-half minutes convincing your bawling child that you'd deliberately been playing the board game backwards as a joke, and that chutes were really ladders the whole time?
Or when you finally asked him to stop hitting the television set because the problem was fixed and his father might be back any minute, and then the two of you stared at the TV, the black-and-white grains pixelating the screen, the right antenna bent like a broken wing.
3. Tell some of the truth
After you've tucked him and Waffles into bed and he asks you again where his father is, tell him your husband will be staying with God for some time. Remind your son how good of a man his father is, how skilled he is with his construction tools. Explain that he's the only one who can help Saint Peter with the noise problem they've been having up there.
It's true: You don't know for sure whether or not the Pearly Gates has a squeaky-hinge problem. But you don't not know that. You figure with the amount of new people who enter every day, there's got to be some wear and tear.
And anyway, they've got to have some decent men up there in heaven, so maybe they chose your husband instead of, say, the guy who sold you this house, the one who told you that all your dreams would come true here and you'd never have to worry about anything.
Your pastor would disapprove. This you know. You can picture his face—sweat-soaked, hard-mouthed, firecracker-red—as he slaps the pulpit, preaching about the Ten Commandments. Can hear the cloudburst of his words stretching across the pews, salvation falling like rainwater: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." But it's your son, not a neighbour, and maybe that makes you exempt, an exception to the rule.
And anyway, who hasn't lied before?
Like the time the Campbells said they didn't have enough money for the collection plate, but you spotted them later that night at the wineshop, both of you carrying full baskets.
Or the time your pewmate Ruthie May, bless her heart, brought a vegan cake to Bible study, and you distinctly tasted butter. (You knew it was butter because you'd lied about your margarine-only diet.)
And what about those times your husband stumbled into bed after midnight and told you he was out doing some last-minute repairs for a client, and they'd invited him inside for some drinks?
Yes, if there's one thing you know by now, it's this: If you believe in something hard enough, it might stop becoming a lie.
5. Say nothing
Once, when you were a little girl, you tiptoed into the kitchen while your mother was taking a shower, threw open the freezer, and inhaled a whole six-pack of ice cream sandwiches. No real reason why. Just because you could.
When your towel-clad mother emerged from the bathroom and saw the results of your banquet—the empty Klondike box, you with one hand on your chilled stomach and one tacked to your clammy forehead—she said nothing. Took a step back, then another, until she was in the safety of her room and the door separated her from your groaning. It took fifteen minutes for you to sit up straight, half an hour before you were able to confess what you'd done, and longer than that for your mother to accept your apology.
But the thing is: That ice cream pain went away on its own. Your mother didn't have to say anything for it to vanish. All it took was some time.
Maybe that's why sometimes, when your son asks how much longer God needs your father's assistance, you say nothing. You float through the house like a poltergeist. Prepare the dinner, change the TV station, keep quiet. He's your ice cream pain, your husband. The stomachache you're waiting for time to heal.
6. Answer his questions
"Is Daddy coming back soon?" is the one you come to dread. For one thing, it's unpredictable, separated by minutes, hours, days. Sometimes, with the two of you glued together on the couch, you'll hear it four times during the span of 60 Minutes. Other times you can go a whole weekend without, thanks to the distractive power of coloring books and trips to the zoo.
For another thing, he's gotten into the habit of following this question up by reminding you that, according to your pastor, Jesus came back in just three days, so why is it taking his father so long?
You should be happy he's paying attention during the sermons at all. It's a small victory.
His other favorites include "Will he be back in time for my birthday?" and "Can we go to see him instead?" Though during dinner one night he surprises you by positioning his teddy bear in front of his face and lowering his voice to a grizzly tone and speaking for Waffles when he asks, "Will you leave me too?"
You have yet to answer a single one of his questions with yes.
7. Tell the truth (about how you feel)
Mommy is tired.
Mommy doesn't feel well.
Mommy has a headache.
Mommy is lonely.
Mommy needs five minutes of quiet time, can we please just have five minutes, please?
8. Be direct
He's carrying a basket as big as his head when you pick him up from preschool one day. It's overflowing with neon card stock—pinks, blues, reds, a rainbow collage of paper. He won't look you in the eye when you help him into his booster seat. It isn't until you've crossed the belt over his chest that you see the words on the cards, the crayon curlicue, the misspellings: "Git Wel Soone."
When you question this, he informs you that his teacher, the freckled one waving at you from the doorway now, heard the news about his father. He tells you how she made all other the kids skip nap time to write those cards while she took him to the side and told him it was okay to tell her how he really felt about losing his parent.
The door slams under the weight of your grip, a noise like a knife slicing an apple in two. You turn to do something to the teacher—what that something is you don't know, will only realize in the passion of the moment—but her back is turned, and she's already headed inside, and you're forgotten, alone.
You slide into the driver's seat. Let the engine rumble, purr. Tell your son you have a confession to make. You can only bring yourself look at him in the rearview mirror.
9. Reassure, reassure, reassure
You assure your son that none of this is his fault. Let him know that he had nothing to do with the accident or the bottles in the fridge or the fight that you and your husband had the last night either of you saw him. Let him know how much you appreciated him staying in his room, even when the vase shattered. Even when your voice grew wild with accusations. Even when your husband stormed out in his boxers and slippers, slammed his car door, sped off to who knows where.
Then, right there in the preschool parking lot, you do something you haven't done in a long time: You thank him.
For his resilience.
For being such a brave, strong boy through all this.
For that day he smacked the TV antenna and turned the screen into mush before the reporter could tell you that there'd been another woman in the car with your husband when, halfway out of town, he'd run the last redlight of his life.
10. Keep hope alive
Some days you feel as though you've lost the lottery.
The house is calm, quieter without your husband's specter haunting it.
Your son doesn't speak as much after the funeral. Maybe he doesn't trust you with answers anymore. Most days he just sits on the carpet with Waffles and glides his toy cars along the floor without making a sound. That is, except for when they hit the coffee table and flip on their side, a noise like a bomb detonating.
Sometimes, when that happens, you swoop down, a light in the darkness, and retrieve the car. Feel its weight shift in your hand. You gently guide it and its imaginary passengers to safety. Set it down somewhere and let it go where it's heading until it reaches its final destination.