By Matthew Hennessey
“Can babies go to jail?”
That’s Clara. She is six. Six and a half, really.
“No. Jail is only for people who do really bad things. Babies can’t do really bad things.”
We’re in the car, riding back from the grocery store. She is looking out the window. I can tell the wheels are spinning inside her head.
“What kind of bad things?”
Oh boy. Here we go. Clara asks great questions, and I want to encourage her curiosity. But these conversations can sometimes feel like an aptitude test that rewards a good answer with a harder question.
“Really bad things. Like hurting people with your fists and taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you.”
Kids get a lot of incomplete information. They overhear us grown-ups talking about stuff and try to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. I can see how this could lead to anxiety about certain things. Like going to jail.
“You don’t ever have to worry about going to jail, sweetheart,” I offer. “Like I said, jail is only for people who do really bad things.”
“And the police come and take them to jail?”
“Well, yeah. There’s a little more to it than that.”
Now it’s my wheels that are spinning. I am imagining all the confusing directions this conversation could go. What is a lawyer, Daddy? Why does the judge wear a robe?
But at least these are questions that have answers. As every parent knows, the metaphysical questions are the real stumpers.
“How long does it take to get to heaven?”
“Well, God takes you there right away after you die. Unless…”
Oops. What in the world am I thinking?
“Unless what, Daddy?…Daddy?”
“Uh, as far as I know, God takes you there right away after you die. Sorry. You know I’m driving so I was just concentrating for a second.”
“What does heaven look like?”
Heaven is a recurring theme. (Talk about incomplete information!)
“I don’t know, sweetheart. Nobody knows what heaven looks like.”
“God knows.” I can’t argue with that. “And so do Grandma and Pop-Pop,” she adds.
Clara’s grandparents, my mother and my wife’s father, both died earlier this year. I am happy that she thinks of them, but I wonder, as always, where this is headed.
“Yes, that’s true. But we can’t even imagine what heaven looks like. We only know what Jesus tells us, which is that it’s a place where you are never scared, or hungry, or feel lonely. It’s just beautiful, and you get to be with all the people that you love.”
I know I’m not the first person who has struggled to put the New Jerusalem into language that a child can understand, but I feel pretty good about this description. There is a pause. I seem to have satisfied her.
“So there’s no food in heaven?”
When we get older, we seem to lose interest in questions that we don’t already know the answer to. We say thing like, “How stupid do you think I am?” or “When are these politicians going to learn?”
I admit it. Before Clara came along, I had stopped wondering what heaven looks like. For whatever reason, I lost the curiosity that we are all born with. Maybe I thought I already had all the answers.
Clearly, I was wrong.
From the January 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.