The little boy trudged in the neatly-tended grass, trying to keep up with the longer legs of the surrounding adults. The sun was high in the clear blue sky, but no one skipped or played.
It started with a phone call one evening that made his mother cry and his father very sad. He asked what was wrong but all his father said was, “It’s all right, Roman. Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed.” There was no bedtime story, just a kiss on the forehead and a closed door.
Roman went to daycare the next morning as usual. When he came home he watched DVD’s on the bigscreen TV in the family room while Mama and Daddy spoke to visitors. A babysitter came so Mama and Daddy could go out the next night. They were dressed up as if going to a fancy restaurant, but they did not look happy about it. Roman heard “it’s better this way” and “he didn’t have to suffer” from guests but they never explained what or why. It was strange and frightening to Roman.
“Grandpa will explain it, when he comes,” the boy told his toys.
Mama wore black and Daddy wore a suit with a tie. They dressed Roman in the little suit and tie he wore at Easter. “You’re growing up so fast,” Mama said, and a sudden sob escaped her throat.
“Why are we doing this?” Roman asked.
“We’re going to… to church,” she explained.
“Already? Boy, time flies!” Roman heard grown-ups say that. Mama’s lips curled into a smile and her eyes crinkled at the corners the way they did when she was amused, but it did not last.
The living room was full of strangers, people who knew Mama and Daddy but most of whom Roman never met before. One of the guests was a lady Mama worked with at the school down the street. She gathered Roman into a big hug.
“Oh you poor little baby. I know you’re going to miss your Grandpa so much,” she cooed.
“Why? Isn’t Grandpa coming to take me to the Aquarium?” Roman asked.
“Oh my God, that was next week. I totally forgot,” Daddy groaned.
“Why, your Grandpa’s gone to see Jesus, honey,” the lady said. “He called him home.”
“But he’s supposed to come to my home!” Roman protested.
“He’s in a better place.”
Mama hissed fiercely, “We haven’t told him yet! We’ll do it in our own good time!” She knelt down. Roman thought Mama looked pretty in black. The little hat with the funny black netting over her forehead was new, and he gazed at it curiously. “Romie, Grandpa’s… Grandpa can’t come.”
Mama glanced up at Daddy, who shrugged helplessly. “He’s gone to Heaven,” Mama said.
“When is he coming back?”
Mama started crying again, and Daddy helped her to her feet. “It’s time to go.”
Roman went with Mama and Daddy to a long black car. The back door opened and Roman saw a welcome figure.
“Uncle Mark! Uncle Mark, am I glad to see you!” Like Mama, Uncle Mark had dusty blonde hair and light brown eyes. Roman had black hair and eyes like his father.
“Hey, hot shot. Come sit with me.” Uncle Mark gave Mama a quick hug. “We had a delay at the airport, sis, but I’m finally here.”
“I’m so glad,” Mama sobbed. “I can’t stop crying.”
“Well, you were his favorite,” Uncle Mark said.
Roman promptly snuggled next to Uncle Mark. Daddy asked how the flight had been, how the weather was – things he never bothered to ask about before. Mama straightened Roman’s little tie and smoothed down his hair.
“You’re going to get all wrinkled,” she sighed as the boy squirmed impatiently.
“We’ll be a matched set,” Uncle Mark said as he tucked his own shirttails in a little better. “Mom sends her condolences. Did you get the flowers she sent?”
“Yes. I wish she would have come, just the same.” Mama fished in her purse for another tissue.
“She didn’t think having an ex-wife on hand was appropriate,” Uncle Mark replied.
“Where are we going?” Roman demanded. “Why is Mama crying and why isn’t Grandpa coming? Where is heaven?”
“Oh crap; you told him, didn’t you?” Uncle Mark asked.
“How do you explain something like this to a four-year-old?” Daddy snapped.
“With words. He’s young, not stupid.”
“Well… well yeah.”
Roman sat between Mama and Daddy in the front of a room full of whispering well-dressed people seated in rows of long church benches. Vases of flowers were placed down front, all around a long box with a hinged lid like a treasure box. People greeted Mama and Daddy and Uncle Mark solemnly, and patted Roman on the head before going to sit on the benches. Several people said it was God’s will, which made Uncle Mark snort and purse his lips.
A man stood up and talked about Grandpa and all the wonderful things he had done. It was a long speech mostly about things Roman did not understand, and he grew uneasy. He clamped his hands over his ears and stared at the program Daddy held: In Memoriam, Roman Elliott McMaster.
As soon as the service was over, Uncle Mark scooped Roman up and carried him out to the black car while Mama and Daddy spoke to everyone else.
“Are you okay, buddy?”
“Where is Grandpa?” Roman asked unhappily.
“Grandpa died, Roman. He didn’t want to, but that’s what happened.”
“His heart quit working. Most of the time people are fine but sometimes places in our bodies just don’t work right, especially in older people like Grandpa.”
Roman curled against his uncle, who hugged his shoulders with one arm. “Did it break?”
“Well…no, when people talk about hearts breaking, that just means they are sad. Grandpa’s heart stopped working and it couldn’t be fixed.”
“Why is it Godswill?”
“That’s what some people say it is. But I’ll tell you something, Roman: I don’t like to think of it that way. Grandpa was a good man and I don’t think God would want to take him from us, knowing how much we’d miss him. I think Grandpa just had other stuff to do, stuff that maybe only he could do in a place where we can’t go yet. But we will. We have stuff to do here and then one day, maybe we’ll go do stuff somewhere else.”
“Where Grandpa is?”
“But we were going to the Aquarium,” Roman said tearfully.
“I’ll tell you what: if you don’t mind, I’ll go there with you instead. I’ve got some time off and there’s nobody I’d rather spend it with.”
“Okay.” He paused. “Why didn’t Mama tell me anything?”
“Mama just misses him a lot, Roman. He used to check our homework and go to all our activities, and he’d interrogate all her boyfriends until your daddy came along. Then he decided your daddy was okay enough to marry Mama.” Roman giggled at the playful tone. “He was always there for us. Your mama and daddy depended on his good advice.”
“Oh… like where to take the car to get fixed, and how to rebuild the back deck; stuff like that.”
“Didn’t he do that for you?”
“Yes he did,” Uncle Mark said softly. “He was a wise man.”
“But you’re not crying.”
“I am. You just can’t see it. People cry differently.”
Mama and Daddy finally got into the car. They all went to a field that looked like spooky places at Halloween, only it was daylight and not spooky at all. Uncle Mark took Roman’s hand as they followed Mama and Daddy to a hole in the ground and folding chairs set up under a green canopy.
“Not again,” Roman complained. “People talk forever.” After a quiet word with Mama and Daddy, Uncle Mark led Roman around to look at the flat stones in the ground. Uncle Mark read the words on the stones for him: names, dates and sometimes phrases.
“Isn’t this a pretty place?” Uncle Mark asked after a while. Roman looked around at the rolling landscape, dotted with rows of stones all in order.
They paused to enjoy the warm breeze. “Just the sort of place Grandpa liked to go: quiet and peaceful, the grass is always mowed and the leaves are always raked up nice and neat.”
“Yeah,” Roman repeated, pleased to recall Grandpa always took pleasure in keeping his lawn trimmed with a riding mower.
“Some people believe that when we die, we go to a place called Heaven, where everything is pleasant and nothing goes wrong. Maybe that’s so; at least I’d like to think it’s so. Maybe it’s a lot like this place, Roman.”
“You don’t know?”
“People don’t know everything.”
“I guess not.”
Mama called his name. She was nearby and no longer looked so unhappy. She looked peaceful instead. Roman ran to her, and they hugged.