Two weeks ago, my family hopped in our modern day Conestoga wagon and headed on up to Cleveland. Uncle Mike's cancer was back, and the outcome was bleak. In November, the doctors had considered him victorious in his battle with esophageal cancer. Four months later, his body was riddled with tumors. Ever optimistic, he decided to give chemotherapy another try. His pre-treatment bloodwork came back with shocking news: Uncle Mike was in kidney failure. Hospice was called in, and Uncle Mike went home to die in peace. Family from around the state were called, and off we went, thankful we were given the opportunity to say goodbye. He died five days later.
I wasn't sure how to explain death to my two children. I didn't want to scare them, but I wanted them to grasp the concept that Uncle Mike was no longer with us. I wanted to scour the Internet and library shelves for professional resources about how to explain death to kids. But, I knew the real answers could be found only in my heart. We talked about God and heaven, our souls, and angels. We had dabbled in the subject before, talking about my grandparents, but death wasn't real to them. But, then again, is it real to any of us?
The more I talked to them, I realized the less I really knew. I answered their questions honestly: "Won't worms get in the coffin, Mommy?" "How come I don't die when I'm sick, Mommy?" "Can I go see God in heaven and come back to see you, Mommy?" But, kids understand grief. They know tears. They know to speak softly and cling more tightly when sadness threatens to envelope the room. They may not grasp the permanency that surrounds us with the passing of a loved one, but they seemed content to know that Uncle Mike was with God and watching down over them. While maybe I didn't answer their questions the way an expert would tell me, I answered with honesty and compassion. And, I like to think the experience strengthened their faith and belief in God. As a man of great faith and hope, Uncle Mike would have been thrilled.
"Mike the Mechanic" was buried last Wednesday with full military honors, laid to rest in a national cemetery in Rittman, Ohio. But, we hold onto the memories of a man who loved his country and his community. And, every night, as we say our prayers, my daughter still includes Uncle Mike. She looks up at me with hopeful eyes, "He with God now, right, Mommy?" as if to reassure me that everlasting life is not to be feared. How can it be that such a small little heart can help heal the broken places in mine?