I have a 10-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son, and a 2-year-old son.
It's an interesting time to listen to their prayers.
Leif, my youngest, still doesn't talk much--probably because he spent so much of his first 18 months of his life sick and in hospitals. Even before he started repeating words, though, the nightly rhythm of prayer helped him relax and accept sleep (we found that out the hard way when we tried to tuck him in without scriptures and prayers one night when his siblings were gone). Now, prayers are his most verbal time of day. Often we can get him to repeat a word or two when he's asking for food, but more often than not at night, he'll take his best shot at repeating the words and short phrases of the prayer Nicole or I or one of the other kids helps him with.
Elijah often wanders and sometimes picks fights during prayers. Some nights, he kind of shouts his prayers or says them in his monster voice. Other nights, he's very thoughtful and helpful. He has one stock phrase that comes up almost every night--he likes to thank Heavenly Father "that we could have good fun." After a while, Nicole figured out that "good fun" meant the fun that comes with good choices: it was his way of asking for help behaving in a way that allowed him to have more fun than conflict with others.
Kira's prayers have recently turned from a narrower focus on our family's home life to our local community. She listens at church and then remembers to pray for specific struggling neighbors and their families. She's more and more likely to think of extended family members and friends. It's gratifying as a parent to watch her awareness mature.
My children's prayers give a pretty decent overview of some key roles religion plays in many lives today. It provides comfort and order. It helps focus us on our personal moral development and master ourselves. And it helps us reach out in compassion toward others, farther than we would likely manage on our own.
Last night, Kira prayed again for the Henley family, whose basement apartment we lived in for four years. Last Sunday, Alice Henley--who'd been like an extra grandmother to the kids--passed away. We've had a few talks about it since, and it was nice to know Kira was thinking of Alice's husband, children, and grandchildren.
Next it was Lijah's turn to pray. I can't remember exactly how his prayer started, but I definitely remember the part where he said, "Thank thee that Daddy will die. Thank thee that Leif won't die."
As soon as his prayer was over, Kira asked him what on earth he was thinking. Why would he even mention Daddy dying? And Lijah repeated some variation on a theme we've discussed several times, especially since Sister Henley's death--death is part of life. It's OK.
And so I find it strangely noble of my young son to thank God for my future death. If he takes the time to bless the name of God again on the day I die, I will be content and proud.
I understand, though, if that turns out to be hard. He's seen Leif stop breathing, seen ambulances rush him to the hospital. And so I'm not surprised that at the same time he prepares himself for my eventual death, he pleads in the guise of thanks for his brother to have a long, perhaps in his mind an endless, earthly life.
And oh my son, when you and I have loved and fought for years, when you've watched me grow frail and spend my own time in hospitals, you may want me to live forever on earth, too. It may be hard to remember on the day I go that death is part of life.
My great-grandmother, Basant Kaur, died when I was in elementary school. Afterward, I used to wonder sometimes if she was spending her time, invisible, somewhere close to me. That thought used to help me when I was tempted to do something I knew I wouldn't be caught for. No living person might know, but I hated the idea of disappointing Beiji.
I'd been home from my mission for about a year when my Grandpa Art died. My dad was able to fly right out when Art went in to the hospital, was able to hold his hand a last time. I was in Utah at the time, and drove out toward California to help move Art to a care center, or else to help clean out his apartment. He died while I was on the road.
It's been a while since that happened, but I still think about Art all the time. Every little while something will come up that reminds me how much I wish my wife and kids could have met him.
I feel like he's somewhere not so far away, but since I knew him so much longer than I did my great-grandma, it's also easier to see him in myself. I like to think that when my kids do finally meet their great-grandfather, they'll recognize him, in part, through the way I was--they'll know that even though he died too early for them, he was still in the way I talked and laughed and looked at the world. They'll recognize the ways they knew him.
I do believe, on an emotional and spiritual level as well as on an intellectual one, that what I tell my children about death is true. It's part of life, though the fear of bereavement and death are certainly part of life, too. We will always wrestle, I think, to find the proper balance between accepting death and working to delay it.
But I hope we remember it doesn't need to be something that severs our closest relationships, in time or eternity.