That’s not the typical light-hearted bedtime conversation I have with Ava. She is usually fretting over which stuffed animal belongs where and what book she will read to me that night. And I’m usually arguing with her about how she needs to go to sleep, how she needs to wake up early to eat breakfast before she catches the bus.
Discussions of mortality are not the standard for us.
I kissed her on the forehead, evading the question altogether.
“When you die, what kind of grave do you want?” she went on. ”Would you like the kind that covers you from the rain? I could put a Winnie the Pooh on it with a jar of honey. That would be nice.”
I was completely caught off guard. I’m just not prepared for her to ask these kinds of questions.
She hugged my neck and didn’t want to let go. This is her usual routine, but on most nights, she clings to me because she doesn’t want to go to sleep, afraid to miss out on life and the wonders of her bedroom that pique her interest in the quiet of the night. I could tell she was holding on for a different reason this time.
Honestly, I was holding on, too. I fought hard the giant lump in my throat and responded.
“I would love the kind that covers me from the rain,” I told her. “And Winnie would be a really nice touch. Thank you.”
The fact is, I do look at Ava and think about her growing up and what things will be like years from now when I’m gone. When she turns 38, like I am now, I’ll be almost 70. Who knows if I’ll be around to see her get married or have children of her own. I see her as a grandmother, sweet and kind, long after I’m gone. It makes me sad.
Mortality makes me sad.
Probably what makes this hardest on me is that I don’t believe in God, or Jesus or any other religious deity.
That’s right – I just came out publicly as an atheist.
Ironically, I was raised a Christian and I have ministers in my family. Part of my family is even Jewish. But religion was not passed down to me. Other than Christmas and Easter, we didn’t discuss, or partake in religious practices as a family. When I was younger, I often went to church with my friends and my parents never seemed to mind. I even spent summers at vacation bible schools. My parents, well, I think they tried to give us values as best they could, but religion just wasn’t in the picture.
I spent the better part of my tween and teen years learning about different religions – Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, the list goes on. Aside from the basic teachings of each, nothing clicked. I think my brain is just too scientific to process the concept of faith. I need facts. I just can’t comprehend how faith works. And, aside from being moderately convinced that reincarnation is real, I have no idea what happens to us when we pass on. Sure, I’ve seen ghosts and spirits. Souls who seem trapped in a life on replay. They seem lost and lonely, like they are searching for something, someone to make them real again. But I fail to see how this energy, this scientific phenomenon, fits into the religious picture.
Despite my personal convictions, we sent Ava to a Christian pre-school where she learned about Jesus and God and even prayed over lunch. It’s important to me that she be exposed to both sides of the equation. Not just because we live in the Bible Belt, but because I feel faith should be a personal choice.
As a mother, when faced with complicated questions like, “Where do we go when we die?” I can see where religion plays a comforting role. It makes sense, but it’s just not for me. My goal is to let her make her own choices, to develop her own beliefs and find what works for her.
And, as a mother, I feel my role is to help shape her values, help guide her on the path to self discovery. One of the most important values I hope to pass on to her is tolerance. At seven, she understands that not everyone believes the same thing. She doesn’t strive to be the one who is right, the winner of religion. She is tolerant. That makes me proud. And grateful.
“Momma, you are 38 and that’s old,” she continued. “I’m going to be a grandma in, like, a minute and you will be gone.”
I squeezed her closer and assured her as best I could.
“I’m still very young, Ava. And it will be a very long time before you are a grandma. We still have so many more years together.”
Her gorgeous blue eyes were misty. She smiled and hugged me tightly again.
“I love you, Momma. More than you can ever imagine,” she said.
I fought hard against the tears welling up from deep inside, hugged her back and breathed in the sweet smell of her hair, her skin, her beauty.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that being a parent is equally as hard as it is rewarding. Before becoming a mother, the thought of not reuniting with my loved ones in an afterlife was just reality for me. Now, I already miss her, but I am thankful for every moment I have with her in this life.
This post was updated from a previous post from Spring 2013 as my submission to Listen to Your Mother.