During the reception afterward, I find myself at a table with my nephews. Just the three of us. Bennett, age 4, is on my lap. Jacob, a year older, has grown out of that.
Jacob has a plate in front of him. I watch as he attacks his fourth sandwich, exactly like the first three: He opens it, eats (or at least plays with) the cucumber slice, discards the meat and devours the bread.
Things are winding down. Some people have already left. I’ve eaten as much as I care to. Bennett might be in need of a nap. Jacob keeps shoveling it in. He looks at me, holds up a piece of crust. “Is this bread Chinese?”
“No,” I say. “Croissants are French.”
“It’s really good,” he says, and takes another bite.
I try to remember some other time Jacob has been given a croissant. Because he must have been. How do you go through four years of solid-food eating and never have a croissant? But if he has, neither of us remembers it, and this new delicacy has wowed him.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Four years isn’t very long, and my nephews don’t remember that far back anyway. There are a lot of things – a lot of things – that they are only now encountering.
“I saw Great-grandpa lying down,” says Jacob. “He looked like he was sleeping, but he died.”
“That’s right,” I say. “He died.” I didn’t know my nephews had seen that. They must have come into the church earlier than I realized, when the casket was still open.
“His heart just couldn’t take it,” says Bennett, echoing something overheard.
“Great-grandpa was very sick,” I agree. “And old. He was 90.”
“He’s in heaven now,” says Bennett. I bounce him on my knee a little.
Jacob, finally done eating, asks, “But what if Jesus changes his name and then he won’t recognize us?”
I’m not sure where Jacob is going with this, or if I even heard correctly. A 5-year-old’s power of expression, like a 41-year-old’s power of comprehension, isn’t always adequate.
“I don’t think his name will change,” I say cautiously. “I think Great-grandpa will always have the same name.”
“He had a wheelchair,” says Bennett. I nod, and Bennett asks, “Why did he have a wheelchair?”
“Because he was very old,” I say. “And very sick. And he was tired a lot of the time. He wasn’t always strong enough to walk. The wheelchair helped him get around.”
“And a cane,” says Jacob.
“And a cane,” I confirm. “He had a cane and a walker and a wheelchair.”
“I never want to be in a wheelchair,” says Jacob.
I tell them about my own very brief experience with a wheelchair, about surgery and anesthesia, and the fear that I might fall if I walked out of the hospital. I’m not sure how much of this they get, but they do get some.
“No one else is going to die,” says Bennett. Not a question, but a probing statement.
“Well,” I say – I don’t want to – “everyone dies eventually.”
“Eventually,” says Bennett, trying the word out.
“But not us,” says Jacob. I don’t have the heart to correct him.
My grandfather lived in North Carolina for just over a month. My nephews hung out with him occasionally, got to know him a little, had their picture taken with him, and then they went to his funeral. They knew about death, or anyway knew the word, but in the context of superheroes. The good guys fight the bad guys, and then the bad guys go to jail or die. This is their first encounter with real death.
I’ve seen them a few times since that day. They’re still happy little kids. They mention their great-grandpa now and again. Are they bothered that he isn’t here anymore? I don’t know.
The secret is out: Life’s journey has an end. I don’t regret that my nephews learned this. I just wish it hadn’t been so soon.