Conversations about how daddy and I met, and how to grow tomatoes, talks about saying potty words only in the bathroom, and how to count to 20 in Spanish.
I’d rather discuss the importance of saving his quarters and dollars for an item he can’t stop thinking about, instead of buying the first toy he sees, and how cool that he gets to have a little brother that’s his partner in crime.
I’d rather chat about why bunnies run so fast, and how to tell the difference if a word starts with “c” or a “k.”
I’d rather emphasize that we love him no matter what – regardless of anything he does or doesn’t do – and that God loves him even more.
I’d rather talk about all these things and more before having to tell Tanner that his beloved Papa was going to heaven. Until now, we’d been visiting Papa in the hospital and praying for the ouchies in his brain. We’d been praying for Papa to get better and maybe even come home. We knew now, his homecoming would be in heaven.
Monday, April 1, loomed, the clock ticking closer to dad’s final hours, weighting the need to tell Tanner the reality of how “sick” Papa was, and we were without words.
That morning, I’d sent a text to my dearest friends: Please pray for wisdom and peace as we talk with Tanner about his Papa. Comforting were the responses:
Believing God will be holding all of you closely and offering comfort as you talk with Tanner.
Praying for Tanner’s sweet little heart and spirit.
Tanner and Ty came to visit their Papa for the last time. Around Dad’s hospital bed they sang, “Country Road,” a song they’d sung a thousand times with Dad, always belting their made-up line, “Eat a Toad!”
We’d arranged for Ty to play with his buddy, Ryder, so we could get some quality time with Tanner.
He chose frozen yogurt and we drove in silence. At the stoplight Bryan looked at me. Let me start, I whispered. His hand covered mine, protective and safe and understanding.
The truth was, I had no idea what to say. So, Tanner, you know how Papa is really sick?… No, it didn’t feel right. I’d been praying for words since Thursday, since Dad’s outcome had taken a left turn and eternity was around the bend. I’d been on my knees, crying out to God’s Spirit for sentences to comfort my oldest, the apple of my dad’s eye, desperately needing a God-breathed approach in bringing clarity to such an incomprehensible topic as heaven.
When I ask His Spirit to speak, why am I so often surprised? Don’t I know that He too, wants to have a conversation with me? Have I not learned by now, that He desires a natural, back-and-forth dialogue during the day? More than ever, I am growing comfortable in this silent conversation with my Creator, depending on His direction and His words and His peace, needing them like I need my next breath.
And there, walking into Tutti Frutti, God spoke.
Of course, I smiled. Of course, God would use Tanner’s current obsession to relate. Of course God meets us where we are, even with a young boy. And suddenly, I knew exactly what to say.
We walked from the yogurt store, Tanner’s chocolate and peanut butter cup landscaped with sprinkles, sour worms, gummy bears, and gobi balls. Passing our car, we crossed the parking lot to the train station, only steps away. A bench faced the tracks and the three of us sat.
Spoon to mouth. Spoon to mouth. Spoon to mouth. Watching the trains scream in, then out. It was the perfect distraction from staring at one another across a table or counter.
Where do you think that train is coming from? we asked our son. Where is that one going? We made up destination stories and talked about how we’d love to take a family train ride one day. Tucking the promise in the back of my mind, I caught our little boy’s eyes.
Tanner, all these people getting on and off the train have a story. And do you know who else has a story? Each of your Star Wars guys. Every single one – the good guys and the bad guys- they each have a story. Who are your favorite guys? In one breath, T rattled off Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, R2D2, C3Po. I nodded my head and Bryan tilted his, probably wondering if I was losing my mind. I let Tanner talk, his four year old excitement evident as he shared the stories of his favorite Star Wars “guys.”
And just like your Star Wars guys, I shared, Papa has a story too. God has used Papa’s life in amazing ways, and while we were praying for Papa to get better, we know the time has come for Papa’s story to finish here on earth, and continue in heaven.
Tanner stared at the train tracks as Bryan and I offered a humble explanation. Minutes after were a calm fuzz, our muffled voices, but God’s words. We spoke about the sickness in Papa’s brain, and how the disease had taken over. We kept it simple and uncomplicated, enough to express that Papa would not be getting better on earth.
And because Papa knows Jesus, and is part of God’s story, he will get a new body in heaven. With no more ouchies in his brain, no more sickness. He will get to hang out with Jesus and his own daddy.
If it weren’t for people praying, interceding for strength, I would have delivered those words in sobs and snot. I can wholeheartedly say, the experience was supernatural. We were calm. We were focused. We were wrapped in God’s protective embrace despite the fact it was one of the hardest conversations we may ever have to have with our oldest.
My hand never left his leg or his arm. I needed to touch him while we shared, to remind him this was real and that he was not alone, to pray that weeks, months and years later, when he’d recall our talk by the train tracks, that Tanner would not feel our touch, but God’s loving hands.
We are going to miss Papa. Every.Single.Day. We’ll miss him. You will see mommy and daddy cry, and Mimi too. We are so happy that Papa isn’t in pain and that he gets to be in heaven, but we will still miss him. And you can miss him too. You can talk about him, and ask questions, and as a family, we are going to walk each day together. We’ll pray for God’s strength when we are sad, and offer each other lots of hugs.
How to explain heaven to a child, when I grapple for understanding as an adult. What I do know is this: Eternity calls even louder with Dad there.
Another train whistled in and we walked back to the car. We hugged our sweet boy and asked if he had questions. We knew it was the first of many talks about Papa, heaven, Jesus, and hundreds of why’s? But it was a start.
One thing I’m sure of, I can choose to talk with my kids about hard things or ignore them. I hope I always choose to talk. I hope to lean on others to intercede for me in prayer when words lack. I hope to push into hard topics instead of shying away. I hope to glorify God in the messy parts of life as well as the celebratory moments. And I hope to pass this reliance of God on to our boys- not because it’s easy, but because it’s essential.
On the way home, Ty looked out the back car window. Papa’s sooooo sick!
Yea, Tanner spoke up, and after a really, really, really, really, really long time, he’ll get better and come home to Mimi and Papa’s house.
It was a gut-dropping moment. Turning my head, my eyes met Tanner’s. With a deep breath, I held his gaze. T, Papa is never coming home. He’s going to heaven to be with Jesus.
I felt cruel saying it. Never is such a final, unarguable word. But it was necessary. It was as if he was hearing our conversation for the first time. Breaking our gaze, he looked out the window. His face crumpled and his body sagged. Bryan pulled over and I crawled in the backseat. I held my little boy. This sweet boy who adored his Papa and is trying to make sense of the hospital and heaven and time. This boy who is obsessed with Star Wars and stories and “good and bad guys.” I clutched his little hand and held it the entire way home, crying for his sweet heart as it processed the truth. A moment later, he looked up at me.
I see faces in the clouds, he said. That one looks like Papa. And sure enough, a face with glasses smiled at my son.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”
― C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle