In everyone’s life, there is a day-of-days that brings implausible joy or sadness that resonates for a lifetime. In my case, however, that day had a surreal clash of life and death happening almost simultaneously in one large collision. March 9, 2004 was such a day — my daughter, Betsy, died of an amniotic embolism while giving birth to my grandson Luke.
In an instant she was gone — dead. No forewarning. It was supposed to be routine – death was not in the equation. She left her husband, Bill, her newborn son, Luke, and her four-year-old daughter, Claire.
The Christmas after Betsy died Claire and I had a quiet moment sitting away from decorating the tree and conversational buzz. The whole family was together to support each other during the first major holiday after Betsy’s death and one of her favorite times of the year.
Claire looked up at me and asked, “Grandpa, where is your Dad?” I was surprised at the question because we never talked about my father before.
“Well Claire,” I said, “my Dad died when I was four years old.”
She paused a moment, leaned close, and whispered, “Oh, Grandpa, you’re just like me.”
I gave her a soft hug and responded, “Yes, Claire, we are a bit alike, aren’t we.” We were linked not only by blood, but also by the tragic loss of a parent – different generations experiencing the same loss 60 years apart.
She waited a second then said, “You know, Grandpa, your wishes don’t come true.” In her face, I could see the bewilderment and pain her mother’s death inflicted.
“Why do you say that?”
“I wish I could grow wings so I could fly into the sky,” she replied. “I would like to fly way up into the clouds.“ Claire and I were alike in another way, too. I wanted to see her mother, too … sometimes desperately so. The holiday was difficult for all of us – Betsy’s absence was always present andIs Your was on all of our minds.
“Well, Claire, those kind of wishes can’t come true. When I was a little boy, I wished I could run fast like a racehorse through pastures and fields,” I told her. ”While some wishes can’t come true, others can.” We sat quiet for a minute and then she asked another question – one that astounded me.
“Is your heart heaven?” The solitude of the bedroom was quiet and serene, just the two of us sharing feelings and wishing things were different.
“Boy, that’s a great question.” I paused thinking about it and then said, “You know, it might be, Claire. Our hearts are filled with love and heaven is filled with love, too.”
She then said, “I wish I could jump into a heart.”
“Jump into a heart?”
“I just wish I could jump into my heart . . .” Her brown eyes were soft with the sadness. I could sense her quiet pain of not understanding death . . . that it is forever and that she would never be able see her mother again or feel her warm hugs and tenderness again.
I told her, “I wish I could see your Mom too. I miss her very, very much.” I choked up as we shared this tender moment. My heart ached for her and I wished a wish that I couldn’t deliver for her. I guess we all have impossible wishes no matter what our age.
More than once, I heard adults tell her, “ Oh, Claire, your mother will always live in your heart” or “Your mother went to heaven and is with God.” She took that literally causing her to want to jump into her heart or to grow wings and fly to heaven to visit her mother. A longing that cannot be resolved – only accepted. If we could go, I would be right next to her — traveling together.
I really don’t know about an afterlife or if heaven even exists, but her metaphor for heaven, in its simple way, was more appropriate than others I heard from ministers and other adults.
Who knows? Maybe Claire is right. Perhaps our hearts are a piece of heaven. If so, then I know her heart and mine will find peace and heal.