A dying little boy wonders if his dad believes in ghosts.
| Goodbye to Noah|
“Do you believe in ghosts, Daddy?” my son asked as he snuggled up against me in my big leather recliner. An odd question, I thought, for a five-year-old boy, though maybe not for a little boy on the brink of death.
“I’m not sure, Noah,” I said. “What is a ghost, anyway?”
“Somebody who is dead but they can’t leave here and go to heaven.”
“Okay. Where did you learn that?”
“TV. I watched with Prissy, and this boy saw dead people and this guy helped them but actually he was dead too.”
“I know that movie. It was called ‘Sixth Sense’. Priscilla let you watch it when she babysat you, right?”
“Right. So, do you, Daddy?”
“Believe in ghosts? I’m not sure. I’ve never seen one, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
“Like Santa, right? I’ve never seen him but he still leaves me presents at Christmas.”
“Uh, well, maybe not quite.... Bedtime, kiddo. Let’s read you a story then tuck you into bed.”
“Hey, Pris left me a bunch of old comics and there’s one called Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Let’s read that.”
We read a Caspar adventure and then discussed it for a while. “I think I’d like to be a ghost. You get to be invisible and fly through the air. But to be a ghost, you’ve got to be dead first, right Daddy?”
“So it would seem. But let’s get you into bed.” We went through the PJs and pee and wash and toothbrush routine.
“So,” I picked up our chat while I tucked him in, “you think being a ghost would be cool?”
“Being a ghost would be way cool. I’m not sure about being dead. Mama’s dead. Do you think she’s a ghost?”
“I don’t think so. I think she went right to Heaven. You know she didn’t like to hang around and twiddle her thumbs.” Of course, this meant that we had to spend a minute or so giggling and twiddling our thumbs, and then each other’s. It takes cooperation to twiddle somebody else’s thumb.
“After I’m dead, I want to be a ghost. Will it hurt to die, Daddy?”
We’d had this conversation before, between the two of us and also with his medical team. Noah had also asked the same question about his mother before she died. At the grief counselor’s suggestion, we had discussed it as a family. “Be honest and open,” Nurse Margaret had told us. “Noah will feel less anxious if he knows what to expect.” So, we talked about it openly, and Noah had accepted Sharon’s death, both as it was coming and after it came, as well as any four-year-old could be expected to. The counselor and doctors had assured Noah (and me) that Sharon hadn’t suffered.
“Remember what Nurse Margaret said when Mommy went through all this? It won’t hurt. Dr. Charmak and Dr. Betsy will take good care of you and leaving will be as quick and easy as water running down a drain.”
Noah grinned at the thought. “Gurgle-gurgle-glug! You’ll be there with me, right?”
“Absolutely. I’ll hold your hand and say goodbye, and remind you to say hello to your Mama for me.”
“Okay. G’night, Daddy.”
“Good night, Noah.”
I kissed him on the forehead and turned out the light. I stood in the doorway, just watching him. I railed against a God who would steal the life of a young mother—a sweet and wonderful woman-- while rapists and murderers lived long and healthy lives. Then I told Him how pissed I was that only a year later He would inflict an innocent little boy with the same foul disease and chop a second huge chunk out of my heart. I cursed the hospital pastor who had assured me that God sends these things to strengthen our faith. Hasn’t God ever heard of positive reinforcement?
Well, hell. We poor mortals just suffer and endure. Life sucks, and then you die. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the name of the Lord. Beyond my pay grade, for sure.
* * *
Eventually, all the possibilities had been considered, all the treatments had been tried, all the prayers had been said. I moved into the local Ronald McDonald House, a home-away-from-home for families of sick or injured children, to be close to Noah in the hospice. It saved me a three hour drive each way, to and from the hospice.
We’d fought the disease again, as I had with Sharon, but this time it was Noah and me and his team. We had stretched his days as far as we could, plus a few days more. We had celebrated his sixth birthday in the hospital. It was a wonderful party with medical staff and bald children in silly colored paper hats. There was cake and ice cream, and a hilarious magician who made a dove come out of Dr. Carmak’s butt.
But at last there came the unavoidable moment when I sat on the bed beside my dying son. As I had promised, I held his hand. I reminded him to say hi to his mama. I said goodbye. I’m not sure he heard any of it, but I’d like to think he did. As Dr. Charmak had promised, Noah’s exit was smooth and gentle.
I cried for Noah, and I cried for Sharon, and I cried just a little for myself.
* * *
That night, long after dark, I sat in my recliner. I missed my wife. I missed my son. I wanted not to think. I wanted not to feel. I wanted to be numb. I tried to ignore it, but the thought was there: I wanted to be dead.
Something weaseled into my numbness, however hard I tried to ignore it. I could feel the warm weight of Noah snuggled against my left side, a feeling as familiar as breathing.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Daddy?” I heard the whisper of his voice.
“I love you, Noah. I want to believe, I really, really want to.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. Mommy’s waiting. I gotta go now.”
The feeling of a small body against me vanished, and his warmth faded from my side.
But it will always stay in my heart.