There are some questions that nearly all parents dread.
Where do babies come from, when do I get an allowance and can you explain the theory of relativity, please, to name but a few.
And then there is the big D. The bucket that someday each of us must kick, the clogs to be popped, the great carking, the reaper.
“Daddy, when we die is it the end? Or do we come back?”
At some point, whether brought on by the passing of a relative, the demise of a goldfish or an aghast viewing of Bambi, every child is going to ask what happens when we die.
So I was braced for it when our five-year-old boy looked up at me, as we walked the forest path to his sister’s school in the fading autumn sunlight, and asked, “Daddy, when we die is it the end? Or do we come back?”
But that didn’t mean I was ready with the right answer.
I needed to tread carefully here.
I can’t remember at what point during my own childhood I found out about death, but I know that it came as a shock. It wasn’t so much my own mortality that got to me (that was too terrifying to contemplate, and I mastered denial at a young age), more the idea that the people around me might just stop being there at any moment.
Though I’ve never been religious, I prayed every night between the ages of about seven to 17. My petition took the form of a garbled version of the Lord’s Prayer (I tended to get bread and trespasses mixed up), followed by a list of people I wanted “blessed” - not killed in the night. Looking back, I only really got over death when I discovered sex. Something else to scare and fascinate in equal measure.
Our son is half-Vietnamese. That means, every now and again, he attends family gatherings to commemorate the death of ancestors.
I’m glad he’s in touch with a culture that acknowledges the big one and formalises the remembrance of loved ones better than my own (though I think some go too far, such as the Madagascans’ periodic exhumation of venerated forebears for the “dance of the dead”). But I suspect he’s more interested in the special jelly he gets to eat on these occasions than their wider implications.
And now here he was, waiting for an answer from the oracle, me, his dad.
I spouted something about different people having different ideas about it all, and maybe some of that being worth consideration, but that, as far as I could tell, dying was pretty much irreversible, the end of everything we know. And then I changed the subject to trains.
“When we die we go to heaven if we’re good, and to hell if we’re bad, and hell’s horrible, with no birthday parties.”
The next day, I asked his sister and a few of her friends for their first-grade take on the whole death thing.
“When we die we go to heaven if we’re good, and to hell if we’re bad, and hell’s horrible, with no birthday parties,” suggested one of her pals, with a conviction that had me worried about their school’s science credentials.
“No, we don’t, we just decompose,” rebutted another, to soothe my fears.
“What about vampires? They don’t decompose,” said my daughter, with the kind of critical thinking to swell a father’s breast with pride.
Of course, if I want my children to develop a healthy attitude to the big sayonara, I’m going to have to get one for myself.
On my bookshelves, untouched, sit The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
It’s just never seemed like the right time to delve into them. I’m still distracted by Asterix the Gaul, and surely there’s plenty of time for all that?
Though lately I’ve been getting a lot of calls from strangers who want to talk about funeral insurance. And I see David Ginola, ex-stalwart soccer player for my beloved Tottenham Hotspur, has just had an emergency quadruple bypass. He can only be a few years older than me, can’t he?
Come to think of it, our kids are growing up with the proof of death all over the house, in the framed photographs of my mother, who would have turned 75 today.
‘Let’s get a cake for her,” I say to my son, when I tell him it’s her birthday. He looks at me with a blend of confusion and sympathy which should never be seen in the face of a five-year-old.
“But she’s died,” he points out, “she can’t eat it.”
All I can do is smile at him, defeated by his logic and wisdom. He places a small hand on my arm.
“That’s OK, Daddy,” he reassures me.
And maybe he’s right.