(From 2003, included in The World According To Chuck: Stories of daughters, dogs, preachers, baseball, and sponge puppets)
Years ago my son drew me a picture, one of those innocent gestures on the part of a child guaranteed to cause permanent psychological damage to his parents.
It was a picture of me in my office downstairs, sitting in front of the computer, and he was on the other side of the door, knocking. Many strange symbols were drawn coming out of my mouth, and none of them looked polite.
This is a downside to working at home with small children in the house. There is no work ethic for children, no awareness of bills that need to be paid or deadlines that need to be met. They want daddy, and they know where to find him. If you work in an office downtown and have small children at home, I can assure you the only reason they haven’t shown up at your place of business yet is that they haven’t learned how to call a cab.
I was reminded of the picture last week, when my son knocked on my door again. It was at the end of the day and I was tying up loose ends, writing emails and sending files. He sounded excited.
“Dad? Can you come see something? It’s really important.”
“Is it so important that it can’t wait 20 minutes? Because that’s when I’ll be up.”
“Oh, all right.” Sound of receding footsteps, slowing trudging back up the stairs.
Immediately I knew what a fool I was. Here I’d been moping around for weeks, walking by my daughter’s bedroom knowing that in six months she’ll be going away to college and it’ll be empty for the first time in 15 years, and I couldn’t find five minutes for my son? Did I really think he’d be 13 forever, wanting to share his excitement and discoveries?
This is what they don’t tell you in the parenting books, that for all the various stages of ambulation and developmental milestones, there will come a time when, oddly enough, the children grow up.
What I find myself missing now are the little things, the trivial moments that seem mundane and slide by without notice. It’s easy to remember the trips to Disneyland and the first day of school, the end of diapers and the beginning of reading. Digging through old videos the other day, though, I came across our complete collection of Winnie the Pooh episodes and wondered when we watched them last. I still know the theme song by heart. I’m singing it right now. “He’s warm and he’s fuzzy/I love him because he’s/Our Pooh bear, Winnie the Pooh Bear…”
And last week, I wondered how long it’d been since I sat in the living room with my children and heard that familiar piano music, and watched Mr. Rogers walk through that same door. They’d be entranced but so would I, sitting in front of the TV and secretly hoping this was the one when he goes to the peanut butter factory. He was my neighbor, too.
He was the best kind of neighbor, the kind who lends you a lawnmower and demonstrates the right way to plant a flower bed. He was a soothing, comforting voice among the Power Rangers and Mutant Turtles on television, but he was an asset to us, also.
When my son was 5, he asked me, “What is heaven?” I wasn’t surprised at the question; he’d been in Sunday School all his life. I was curious, though, so I said, “Umm…why do you ask, John?” He stared out the window, thinking. “Because I don’t know,” he said.
What a dumb grownup thing for me to say. What a perfectly natural question for him to ask. And what an opportunity Mr. Rogers would have had to show me how to do better. “Heaven can be a SCARY idea sometimes, can’t it?” he’d say, and off they’d go. I learned there are lots of worse things than wondering, “What Would Mr. Rogers Do?” when it came to my children.
On Mr. Rogers’ website, there is advice for parents to help their children deal with the news of his death. What about me? I wondered, but I know what he would say. Our job is to take care of the children, to help them feel safe, to answer their questions, to show them that they are loved. There is no greater calling, he believed. I believe it, too.
I don’t know what heaven is. I don’t know the dimensions or the location. I don’t know the criteria for admission and I don’t know if I’m on a list. I haven’t a clue about the food situation.
But I’m aware of heaven, as surely as my children are aware that I’m downstairs in my office. I like to believe that it’s a place of pure peace and joy, free from hate and war. And I’d like to believe that it’s a place for children, where their questions are always answered and their souls are nurtured, where they’re safe at last and forever, and where they are now watched over for eternity by an angel in a cardigan sweater.