The adults at the table paused and exchanged glances, silently pleading that one among us knew what to say. With no clear leader, my father-in-law, Eric, got stuck initiating a response. After all, he was the one Liam questioned.
“Yes, I am going to die someday.”
Liam’s smile collapses and tears well up in his eyes. A wave of panic washes over the adults as we all struggle to comfort this boy not five years old.
At first, the storm seems to pass before it really begins. His tears subside, and we all resume eating our salads and pasta. But Liam picks at his food. Normally a bit of a chatterbox, especially when having dinner at his grandparents’ house, Liam is silent. A few moments pass before he looks at me. When he finally does, I can tell from his expression that his heart is breaking.
“I don’t want Papa to die ever!”
I hug him and say what I can to reassure him. I want to tell him that it will be alright, that Papa will be around for a long time. But how do I know? None of us can predict the future. Instead, I tell him about my own father passing. I talk about all the fun times I had with him and how he’s always with me when I think about those good memories. Liam continues to sob.
I change tactics and steer the conversation to his Granny’s upcoming birthday. I ask for advice on presents she might like and what flavor of cake is best. Liam and Kellen talk excitedly as we make plans for a party. Crisis averted, or so I thought.
During the car ride home, Liam asks the even tougher question.
“What if I die?”
What to say. Ben and I do our best to explain that every living thing dies, that it is part of the cycle for new life. Liam breaks into tears yet again. This time, we do not try to divert his attention. I turn and hold his tiny hand, a visual reminder of his just how young he is to be asking such big questions. Ben reaches behind the seat and offers a reassuring squeeze to his leg.
“You can talk to us any time you want. We’ll listen.”
Listen. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Every day, Liam tells us about his latest idea for an invention- a self cleaning house so that I am always free to play with him, rocket shoes that can fly him to the moon. This night, he said he was going to invent a robot that could make sure that nobody ever died. It would be programmed to find all your bones and put them back together. I guess in his mind, this equates to cheating death.
I laid down next to him that night as I tucked him into bed. As is my custom, I recited “Starlight, Starbright,” ending by asking him what he wished for. Most nights, he wishes for a toy or a playdate with one of his buddies. Not that night.
“I wish that I would never ever die.”
Me too, buddy. Me too.