The Christmas after my daughter Betsy died my four-year-old granddaughter Claire and I had a quiet moment away from decorations, tree and conversational buzz. The solitude we shared was quiet and soft, just the two of us.
The whole family was together to support each other during the first major holiday after Betsy’s death — 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 toward me, 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 looked at me and then said, “You know, Grandpa, your wishes don’t come true.” I looked at her innocent face and I could see the bewilderment and pain her mother’s death inflicted.
“Well, Claire, some kinds of wishes can’t come true. When I was a little boy, I wished I could run fast like a horse through pastures and fields,” I told her. ”While those kinds can’t come true, many other wishes can.” Then she asked another question – one that astounded me.
“Is your heart heaven?”
“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 big brown eyes were soft with the sadness of wanting to see her mother again. I could feel her quiet pain of not understanding that death is forever and that she would not ever be able to feel her mother’s warm hugs and tenderness again.
I told her, “I wish I could see your Mom too, Claire. 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 up to heaven to visit her mother — a longing that cannot be resolved just accepted. If we could go, I would be right next to her — traveling together.
Death is the dominant unyielding force in life. I really don’t know about an afterlife or if heaven even exists, but her metaphor for heaven, in its innocent way, was more appropriate than others I heard from ministers and other adults. Who knows?
Maybe Claire is right. Maybe our hearts are a piece of heaven. If so, then I know her heart and mine will eventually find peace and heal.