Monday, March 13, 2006

Between the dead and the unborn

My eldest daughter finally asked me the question I've been quietly dreading since her birth, four and a half years ago. Have you got a Daddy? Having time to prepare an answer isn't the same as having a good one, and the best I could manage was a feeble euphemism: he isn't with us any longer. She just brushed this aside - where does he live then? - and I was stuck with the old, awful question. What do you tell them about death?

Three and a half decades ago, faced with a similar problem, my mother had an easier task. When we die, she said, we go to a place called heaven, where Jesus lives with all our loved ones. You won't die until you're old - and that won't be for a very long time - and when you do, you'll be happy. This original message was reinforced with a few years at Catholic school, which taught me about heaven and hell and purgatory and the importance of doing what your priest says.

It took me until I was eleven or twelve to see through these sugary lies, and many years to stop feeling angry about it. Those teachers had taught me that my soul was like a piece of blotting paper, black and vile until it was turned white by confession. They asserted the existence of these elements of their theology with the same sureness that they used to told me that the Romans once conquered Britain, or that two plus two equals four. Unable to understand that personal belief is not the same as verifiable fact, that belief without evidence is just hope, these charlatans, blotting paper and all, had used the classroom as a forum for my indoctrination.

And now, perhaps for the first time, I was seeing how easy a religious white lie could be how bleak atheism can seem. My father is gone forever, and I will never see him again. That's hard to accept as an adult, but to a child?

I could hardly speak anyway. My father's death was a harsh one, and all it takes is a trigger for grief to come stampeding back. When I won't sit in the chair where he used to sit. When I see the rug that covers the stains on the carpet where he lay dying. When I tend his grave.

I used to have a Daddy, I told her, but I don't any more. He isn't alive now. He died.

And my daughter just nodded her head, and started jumping on and off the settee. She doesn't mourn her grandfather, and she never will. Was it Thomas Paine who said that the greatest chasm of all is that between the dead and the unborn? Grandad will always be an abstraction, nothing more than a missing piece in the puzzle that is our parents.

My daughters will never know him. And he never knew of them. That's the worst of all.


Anonymous Dick said...

A moving piece.

My father died before the birth of Reuben & Rosie & they know him only from two photos standing near my mother's bed in her nursing home. I guess I must brace myself for the first enquiries, although I suspect that the kids' reaction will be as uncomplicated & natural as your daughter's. I hope so.

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