“How do you know there’s a heaven?” and other questions I’m not qualified to answer

No good news comes at 5:52 in the morning. Publisher’s Clearinghouse never surprises you with a life-changing check at 5:52 a.m. Your boss doesn’t call and offer you a promotion at 5:52 a.m.

Yesterday I got a 5:52 a.m. call. My grandfather had died.

My whole heart broke for my grandmother, his life’s love, his four surviving children, and for the rest of us left here without him.

We all have those people in our lives, be it an old friend, a sibling, or a grandparent. A hug from them means you’re home. A hug from my grandfather, Charles Richelieu, meant I was home, safe, and loved.

I feel a little guilty my kids don’t have the same “grandparent” experience I had.  My grandfather picked us up from school every Wednesday. My cousins and I had slumber parties at my grandparents’ house about every other weekend. We even took family vacations packed in their wood-paneled station wagon.


When my parents divorced the house I grew up in was no longer really “home,” but I had hugs from my Grandaddy. He was my home.

He is the “Charles” in my son’s name, Penn Charles.

My grandfather was impossibly funny, generous to a fault, and crazy in love with my grandmother. When I was a confused 20-something searching for answers after some random guy stomped on my heart, I asked my grandfather, “How did you know Mema was “the one”? His reply stuck with me: “When I saw her, it wasn’t IF I would marry her, but WHEN can I marry her.” They were in high school, by the way. So a marriage at ages 17 and 19 went over like a ton of bricks with my grandmother’s parents, but love obviously stood the test of time.


My children knew their great-grandfather very well. When they woke up yesterday finding Penn and me cuddled on the couch — obviously upset — they asked what was wrong. I told them, “Grandaddy has gone to heaven. He was asleep and didn’t wake up. He’s having a reunion in heaven with Aunt Jeannie and cousins Ray and Gary.”

They were sad. And confused. “Oh crap,” I thought. “They are going to have follow up questions.” Here’s where I really need some sort of parenting App or manual.

Lola started, “If he was asleep, can we just wake him up?”

“No sweetie, his body was sick.”

Lola again: “Why don’t they give him medicine?”

“Sometimes medicine can’t help,” I replied calmly.

Penn Charles came in with a zinger, “How do you know he’s in heaven?” This got me flustered.

I have an atheist friend who believes your body just stops. There is no soul that drifts into an afterlife. He believes you die. You’re done. I don’t believe that. But at that moment, in front of my children, I couldn’t articulate why.

I know this topic has kept theologians employed for centuries. I have sat in Sunday school and a church congregation the whole of my life, but I couldn’t come up with an explanation of heaven to my five-year-old.

I go to church because it makes sense to me inside those walls, but I have always feared being asked to really defend my faith. Penn and I are the type of Christians who won’t judge you for not being a Christian. We love gay people, straight people, even people who say mean things about us on the Internet.  We drink wine, we cuss more than we should, we make mistakes, and we believe in God. That’s the religion I practice.

Penn Charles was waiting for an answer. I think I muddled something like, “We know he’s in heaven . . . now, eat your breakfast.”

The question stayed with me as I booked flights to Florida and packed my bags. It kept me up last night.

Before I left for the airport this morning, I snuggled close with my little guy. I still don’t know if I had the answer to his question but here’s what I said:

“I know my grandfather is in heaven because that’s what we believe. It’s what we are promised.  I believe in a place past this earth where bodies, once sick, are well. Where loves separated are reunited. And where you can eat all the ice cream you want and never gain weight.”

He seemed satisfied with the answer and went back to playing Legos.

Now I’m sitting on an airplane heading south, anxious to hug my family. I can’t help staring out the window. The rough, rainy weather gives way to perfect, pillowy clouds.  I wish I could say I feel an overwhelming sense of calm or peace. Nope. My heart still twists in my chest when I think about walking into his house and not giving him a hug.

I am 30,000 feet closer to the Big Guy — so I figure I should throw up a prayer, because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?

“Thank you for giving me a grandfather who let me wear Wonder Woman Underoos (JUST the Underoos) on Easter Sunday. Please, heal the heart of my grandmother who now walks the earth without her true love of sixty-four years. And please forgive my grandfather, who is likely holding court already, telling inappropriate jokes to our sweet relatives who went before him. Sorry about that. Amen.”


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