Lately, I’ve been thinking about death.
Actually, I haven’t.
I don’t like to think about death. Whenever the subject of death springs to mind, the two thoughts that form in my brain are scary, and go away. It’s my son, Lester, who has been thinking about death, and he has been asking me all sorts of practical questions.
“How do people get to Heaven, do they walk?”
He tossed out this particular query from the back seat of our rented Pontiac Firebird while we were driving to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital to visit his granny, who had told him two days previous — tremulous, clutching a rosary — that she expected to be in Heaven soon with her husband, Stan. This is not the sort of thing that I would generally encourage grandparents to say to fiveyearolds, particularly when their mother has not yet prepared them for the concept of finite existence. But Lester took from it what he could, which is to say nothing, beyond the idea of Heaven itself as a new destination. Now Earth consists of four places: our summer cottage, Toronto, Cape Breton and Heaven.
The North Atlantic wind was buffeting the car, so cold that my earlobes were still throbbing in spite of the car’s heater and I could barely keep my shivering hands still on the wheel.
“No, I don’t think they walk to Heaven,” I replied.
In truth, I haven’t got the faintest idea how people get to Heaven. I have never read the Bible. Nor the Talmud, the Koran or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If any of them have specified the transit route to the afterlife, I am simply unaware. So.
“They float,” I told Lester, experimentally.
“They float?” He sounded awed. We passed Dana, my motherinlaw’s cousin, who was shuffling along the icy sidewalk, head to the wind, with a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the crook of her arm. I slowed down to wave. She pointed emphatically to the bag, and then uphill toward the hospital, indicating that she was on her way to deliver the contents to Bernice.
“Great,” I mouthed to her, nodding.
“Do they float in the lake?” Lester asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“When people go to Heaven, do they have to wear a life jacket?”
“No, they — I don’t think they float on water, Lester, they float in the air. They don’t float like fish, they float like leaves. Except up.”
It’s the followup questions that nail you. You can get away with fairly preposterous theories when you’re talking to a fiveyearold, but you have to have thought them through. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the probable existence of elves: these are lines of inquiry that I’ve rehearsed. “Ah, the Tooth Fairy. Yes, she’s very special, Lester,” I was able to explain recently, when his friend Clarence turned up at the Tweedle Dee Daycare with a gap in his front teeth. “She wears a cloak of maple leaves and builds little castles made of teeth — deep in the forest. She’ll leave coins under your pillow if you place your tooth there.”
Ever since, Lester has been planning what to do with his windfall, and I have been silently adjusting the figure for toothfairy leavings depending upon what he envisions. Fifty cents doesn’t buy much any more, but $4.99 is enough to snag a twoinch plastic hadrosaur at the Museum of Nature.
God is a different proposition entirely.
“I don’t know where, exactly, they float,” I conceded to my son. “Nobody knows, honey. The stairway to Heaven is a secret passage that only the dead can find.”
For a moment I marveled at this impromptu theology until it hit me that I’d copped it from Led Zeppelin.
Lester was stuffing his nose into his ski mitt.
“Are we there yet?” he asked.
What saves you in the end is the fact that fiveyearolds have no attention span.
“Don’t worry, little goose,” I said, because this one I knew: “We’ll be there soon.”
We were there, in fact, a minute later, for New Waterford is a teensy town on an enormous island in the North Atlantic, connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a single causeway. When I first came here with my boyfriend Calvin, more or less direct from New York City, I was amazed at the remoteness of the place, and further awed by the presence of malls. I could barely comprehend how piles of Mexican bananas and John Grisham novels could wend their way so far into the wilderness. Geography ought to have cast the island culturally adrift. Perhaps in some ways it had. Certainly nowhere else in North America had I seen fire hydrants painted as Smurfs.
The town Calvin comes from is inhabited by unemployed miners and their wives, all of whom work at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital serving tomato soup to the eldest of the unemployed miners, or next door at the Maple Hill Manor, serving soup to the eldest of the miners’ wives. New Waterford was once a thriving community made prosperous by the Dominion Coal Company, which hired strapping young Acadians and Gaelicspeaking Scots to exhaust the motherlode while they sang. In the evening, they joined together to play their fiddles and accordions. At some point, as the mines closed and the miners began to pay for their careers with their lives, the business of the community shifted. Now, if you want to work here, your best bet is to learn how to give sponge baths.
As we got out of the car, I saw Dana’s sister Janey trot through the squat brick hospital entrance and dart across the parking lot. I waved. She didn’t see me, but waving is very important in New Waterford. I learned this on my maiden visit, when Calvin brought me to meet the unexpected grandparents of our unplanned child. I discovered that waving was far more essential than knowing who anyone was. Not waving signaled that you — the stranger, the New Yorker, in my case, for that was where I was living when I got pregnant — think you’re too good for them. That you’re stuckup. A snob.
In fact, I feel quite the opposite here. I worry that Calvin’s relations and all of their friends secretly think I’m inferior. Inept at baking, lousy at bingo, illinformed on the subjects that matter — like God, good coffee and how to craft doilies. Luckily, New Waterford folk are very kind, provided that you wave, and they have been a wonder in their care for my ailing eighty-year-old mother-in-law.