Freedom Friday– every Friday I free myself from a burden, either an old embarrassing story, a secret phobia, a lie I told and got away with, a fear I can’t win, or something else to be determined. I want to free myself from secrets to end those nagging moments when I can’t sleep at night, or those random thoughts that pop in my head for no reason other than their need to get expelled from my psyche. We all need to free ourselves from self-recrimination, to open ourselves up and face our fears. Freedom Friday is my attempt to do that, and in turn take ownership of my guilt so it doesn’t eat me alive anymore.
Last night the kids were helping me clean the kitchen after dinner. Twinkle likes to ask deep, philosophical or scary questions when we are doing chores. Last night, she turned to look at me while I washed dishes, a sponge in her hand, at rest between scrubs of the kitchen table. She told me, “Mom, I am scared about what happens when you die.” Her face immediately turned red, her mouth gaped in a silent cry for comfort, and then rushed over to my side, hugging me around the waist.
We are Unitarian Universalists but I grew up Catholic. The pat answers that gave me peace during my childhood directly conflict with our family’s religious identity. I can’t tell her about the perfect clouds of heaven, the guarantee of forever as long as we listen well and love Jesus. I pulled her into a tight hug, walked over into our family room and told her that no one can come back after they die, so there is no way to know what happens. I explained what each heritage she can claim a part of (Catholic and Jewish) believes. I explained reincarnation. I explained that some people believe that nothing happens, your body becomes part of the earth. She said she wants to believe in reincarnation, but only if she can be reincarnated after her parents are and come back as our baby again.
She asked me if we could start going to two or three different churches to cover our bases. She feels like she has a better chance of getting an afterlife if we go to Synagogue, Unitarian services and Catholic mass. The reason we became UU before having kids was to prevent ourselves from feeding them a truth we were uncertain of ourselves. However, going blind yesterday was a cluster of emotions I was not prepared to handle.
Confession 1: Sometimes I wish I still believed in my childhood version of heaven, where all good people who love Jesus get to go on to eternity and everyone else burns in hell. I am not sure if heaven exists, I would like it to. I know hell is a construct created during the Council of Nicea as a means of keeping people in line with the church’s teachings. That is history, and I feel safe sharing history with my kids. I can with great confidence tell my kids that a pit of fire does not await them, that the end will indeed be peaceful either in its nothingness or in its glory, but I cannot tell them I know what will happen without lying. So I am left with a six-year-old huddled in my arms telling me that she needs to go to lots of churches so she earns the right of existing forever. The voice in my head prayed for easy answers to fix it, I only wish I could still believe in them.
A few minutes later she calmed down. We were talking about one of her favorite shows on PBS, Arthur. She grasped both of my hands in hers, looked me straight in the eye, and told me that no matter what she hopes that no one she loves ever has cancer. She told me that Arthur’s lunch lady had it and it made her body produce weeds instead of flowers so they had to rip out the whole garden and start over. I need to watch the episode for clarity—I have no idea what she means with that metaphor.
My father’s cancer was the greatest intrusion into my personal sense of safety I had ever experienced. Sure, a few of my older relatives had had cancer. But the immediacy of cancer in a grandparent is something different than watching your own father stripped of the immortality cloak you bestowed on him during your childhood. The guy I knew would be there for me for always, to fight my foes when I was too wary and call me out when I needed it, the guy who never once complained about the long hours he worked and came up with ways to creatively complement every extracurricular activity, failures and successes alike, was now mortal.
I could talk about the “good side” of cancer. It pushed me to make life altering decisions quickly. Facing the fact that life was no longer a guarantee I jumped headfirst into really living, including starting my marriage. Best damn snap decision ever, by the way. I am 100% sure we would have gotten married after a traditional dating period, but this way we skipped all that and waltzed to the altar after knowing each other less than a year. I jumped into starting our family, too, knowing that in my husband I found a man who could be a Dad on caliber with my own Dad. It also made me see how lucky I was that I was blessed with my parents.
But seriously, screw cancer. Glass half full, learned my lesson, don’t take life for granted, these lessons could have been taught without the fear of losing my Dad. He is in remission now, and spends many hours each week, hand in hand with my awesome and strong mom, playing with our kids and giving them the experiences I cherish so much from my own youth. Last night, with Twinkle in my lap and tears flooding my face, I told her that sometimes people live through cancer. She asked me if I knew anyone who did. I told her Poppa Rocks had cancer once, but was all better now. She was immediately overcome with emotion and told me he wasn’t allowed to have it anymore because she doesn’t want him to die. She told me that maybe he should go to UU, Catholic and Jewish church with us, too, just in case.
Confession 2: I wish I would have lied to her last night. I wish I would have told her that no one we know has ever had cancer. We wove through two of the most heart-wrenching conversations of my life in a matter of 20 minutes. I had to watch my own daughter process the fact that even her Poppa, the guy who hangs the moon from his shoulders and is never too tired to push her on the swings one more time, that guy was mortal like the rest of us. I take pride in not lying to the kids. If they ask questions I answer them. This is why my six-year-old can draw you a diagram of the reproductive organs of a woman and explain periods. But this time, this time I wish I would have lied to her.
After a few minutes of more talk Ninja piped up, “This stuff is sorta making me sad. That makes it really hard to concentrate on Legos, you know.” And with that Twinkle hopped off my lap and helped construct a Lego tree house.