I take my children to the cemetery every July to celebrate my mother’s birthday. The first time I did this, my oldest son had just turned one. My mother had been gone for about eight months, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about celebrating a birthday for someone who is no longer here. I held my son in my arms as I released balloons up to the sky. I told him stories about my mom, cried, and, even though I was certain balloons can’t really make it to heaven, I wondered if she felt the love we were sending along with them.
As the years went on and I had another son, I found myself with two young boys who were hungry to help me celebrate my mom’s birthday. We continued the tradition: balloons, tales, Mommy tears, and wondering. My sons love this day because they get to send balloons off to heaven. It’s an exciting part of their day and helps me get through mine.
This past July, things were a bit different. I had now lost both my parents, and the loss of my father was still so raw. His name wasn’t even on the tombstone yet, so it almost didn’t seem real. My oldest had also just turned five and as he sprouted, so did his curiosity. This was the first year that he had a lot of questions for me. As we wrapped up, I tried to compose myself before getting back into the car, but I hadn’t mastered that, so I gave up and allowed myself to sink into my seat. The boys had a movie playing, and I figured I had a few moments to try and regain my composure to get back on the highway. After a moment, my oldest son asked, “Mommy, are there cell phones in heaven?”
His question and delivery made me laugh. I was intrigued.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you’re crying. Can’t you just call your mom and dad and tell them you miss them?”
My Mom brain began to spin, and in just a few seconds, I concocted a myriad of reasons why there are no cell phones in heaven. These lies ranged from bad reception that far up to no one has pockets in heaven, so they have nowhere to put their phones. He nodded but would follow up every answer with another question. It was a cacophony of Mom-scuses and a toddler brain working against each other. I couldn’t take the noise anymore, so I just came out and said it.
“There are no cell phones in heaven because everyone is dead,” came roaring out of my mouth.
He stared at me for a moment and simply said, “Dead? What does that mean?”
I was frozen in the middle of July. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. How do I explain what death is to my five-year-old? How can I make death not sound like, well, death? Most importantly, was this going to traumatize my kid? I took a deep breath and decided that, in this moment, maybe the truth was what my son needed. Maybe it was what I needed too. So I just did it. I took some time in the car to explain to my son that not everyone or everything can live forever on Earth and even explained what it means to rest in peace.
I’ll never be a perfect mom, and my answers are not always the right ones, but this was my most perfectly imperfect parenting moment, and, if anything, it allowed my son into my world for a moment. Now when he sees me mourning the loss of my parents, I can tell he understands why I miss them so much. On the drive home that day, he said, “Mommy, you know something?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
He took a deep breath and said, “You know, life would be so much easier if they’d just let you have a cell phone in heaven.”
And for once, I totally agreed with a five-year-old.
Photos: Louisa Vilardi