Just as I’m about to pull the door closed Archie whispers for me and says, ‘Dad, when will I die?” and my first thought Oh fuck is quickly followed by my second thought Fuck because I'm about as prepared for this discussion, right now, as a Rabbi is prepared to buy $8 shots at a strip club.
As I kneel down next to Archie’s bed and scratch his recently clipper-ed head affectionately and tell him that he doesn’t have to worry about dying for a very long time I feel conflicted – I’m heartbroken that my four-year-old already has an understanding of death at the same time that my biological drive for food has me believing that I can actually hear my meal sizzling in the oven. I have to make this quick.
‘So, I will die?’ Archie says and before I know it I’ve answered. ‘Everything dies, Arch, but most people live for a long long time until they’re very very old,’ which Archie quickly counters with, ‘But I don’t wanna die,’ complete with watery eyes and a wobbly lip. He’s so tiny in his giant bed.
The Running Man becomes the The Barely Jogging Man when I see the faraway look of concern in Archie’s eyes and by the time I accept that my distraction technique is failing I’m doing The Walking Man which is quickly replaced by The Standing On The Spot Bobbing Weakly at The Knees Man when I realize that my steak has almost definitely moved from the preferred medium-rare range to very well done.
I decide to give up on the fullness of time angle and run with the idea of heaven. I’m uncomfortable with this approach because I feel like I’m lying to him but then I have been telling him, for the past month, that a jolly fat guy is going to break into our house in the middle of the night and leave a bunch of presents under a Christmas tree and if I can influence his behavior with something as ridiculous as that surely I can soothe him temporarily by saying, ‘Some people, Archie, believe that when you die your body stays here but you go to Heaven with God.’
‘It’s a place where everyone is happy all the time and you get whatever you want.’
‘Where is it?’
‘It’s up in the sky somewhere.’
‘How do I get there?’
‘You, um, float up there.’
‘Will our chickens get up there?’
‘Yes, if you want them there.’
‘Because… it’s heaven… you get to have whatever you want up there Archie – lollies and toys and pets and giant well-seasoned steaks cooked to perfection…’
‘How will our chickens get up there?’
‘They'll float too, I think… I mean, I suppose they could fly.’
‘Because everything is better up there, Arch, and the chickens really want to fly on earth but they can’t…’
‘You cut their wings…’
‘Yes, I did cut their wings… but when they get to heaven they can get their wings back and… do you know, if a little boy doesn’t have any legs on earth, but really wants legs, he gets to have legs when he goes to heaven.’
‘Could he have wings?’
‘Yes, I suppose he could.’
‘Archie, are you getting this, when you go to…’
‘Will my Teddy’s go there?’
‘They’ll already be there, Archie, you know… with God.’
‘This old guy, with a big beard, who made everything.’
‘Is he Santa?’
‘No Santa’s the guy that brings presents once a year. God is the guy who waits in heaven and gives you everything you want… so, yeah, I guess they’re basically the same.’
Archie fiddles with the ears of his Teddy for a short while before saying, ‘Will the dogs be there?’ and I’m just about to curse God for making me an Atheist when Lewis, out of the blue, cries, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven,’ which inspires Archie to say, ‘Me either’ and in a panic I say, ‘Well, you don’t have to go to heaven,’ to which Archie replies, ‘So I won’t die?’ and I feel like I’m Bill Murray waking up to that same fricken alarm every morning on Ground Hog Day and – thank you subconscious – that gives me an idea.
‘Boys,’ I say, as I tuck them both in and arrange their Teddy’s, ‘Do you know what’s going to happen tomorrow? You’re going to get up and have breakfast, and change in to your clothes and watch a little bit of television and eat some food and play with some toys and maybe paint a little and go outside and jump on the trampoline and have some more food and fight with each other and walk the dogs and do something naughty and sit in the naughty corner and eat some dinner and read a few books and have a bath and go to sleep and then do you know what’s going to happen?’
‘What?’ Archie says.
‘You’re going to wake up and have some breakfast and change into your clothes and watch a little bit of television…’ and when Archie starts to giggle at my repetitiveness I realize that I am on the right track and even though my steak is probably way beyond repair I repeat myself in this fashion for at least twenty minutes until Archie stops laughing and Lewis falls asleep and finally, as I notice the hint of charcoal in the air, Archie’s eyelids dip and flip and finally close.
I walk a tightrope to the door and enter the hall and walk down the stairs and sprint for the oven to find my steak is so well cooked that it will leave bruises on my gums to chew it but I’m determined and after covering it in Dijjonaise Mustard I sit in front of the computer.
I feel a sense of triumph, for some unknown reason, at the same time that I feel gutted – four Christmas’s in and my son is already death-aware. I decide to listen to some terrible, sad music to purge myself of this heavy feeling as quickly as possible and as I start to you-tube, ‘A Touch Of Paradise’ by John Farnham, I’m startled by Archie who appears at the computer-room door holding his Teddy.
‘Daddy,’ he says, ‘Why doesn’t the little boy have any legs?’
And so I forget about John Farnham and instead you-tube Stomp by the Brothers Johnson, push my lump of charcoaled cow to the side and start shaking my arms and legs limber so that I can bang out The Worm for the little guy and finally put the issue to bed.