I slip the CD into the car audio slot and the music begins. As always, Cole tells me he likes riding in my tiny car because we can play CD’s and listen to music and we dance and get silly while driving.
I hunt through Goodwill stores and garage sales, always looking for “hidden jewels,” preserved covers and discs without scratches on the tracks. Cole is very specific about his likes. He doesn’t much care for little kid tales. He likes The Four Tops, Jimmy Buffett, The Beatles and Raffi. This day I slip in Jimmy Buffet’s “Greatest Hits” into the slot. Track 7.
He sings along to “Volcano” gyrating to the music from the toddler seat in back, as we both sing along.
I don’t know where a’ma gonna-go when da volcano blow!
He throws his gloved hands, fingers flaring up in the air, mimicking the eruption and laughs. Then when Mr. Utley comes in with the steel drum solo, Cole is playing air steel drums with imaginary sticks in tiny hands, waving along in the make-believe tropics of my Ford Escape.
The song begins and he interrupts. After the first few bars, I hear his small voice over my shoulder. I turn the volume down and turn my head briefly towards him.
But Papi, what is “paradise”? he asks. I’m puzzled.
Why is there a cheeseburger in paradise? (That was the song playing, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”)
I pause as we wait for the traffic light to change. Never thought about the song that much.
I reply “Paradise” is a word that means a beautiful place where everyone is happy and peaceful, and the place is full of color and nature and flowers and beautiful plants and animals.
A brief pause.
But what about the cheeseburger?
Well, the song is about eating a delicious juicy burger in paradise, which I guess Jimmy thinks it makes being in paradise feel even better.
The traffic light turns green. I turn up the volume as Buffett glides in on the chorus.
But, how do you get to paradise? he says. I turn the volume down.
I’m not sure but it is about when people die. That is a place they go to...when they die.
The song ends. In between tracks Cole says,
But when your body dies, you don’t eat or breathe or talk, or do anything anymore, they just bury you, like our dog, Sumi, in the dirt.
I eject the disk and can see his face off the mirror. He seems like he is about to cry.
Is she in paradise if she is buried in the backyard?
By now I sense an emotional conundrum in the making, and I make a weak attempt at explaining metaphysics to a precocious five-year-old who is about to burst into tears.
Well, you see, when people are born, they have a body and inside the body there is a thing we can’t see that is called the spirit. Everybody has a spirit in their body. All spirits are different, just like people’s faces and their legs and hair are different. The way God made them, when they die, the body dies but the spirit inside them gets out of their body and stays around forever. If people are good, if they love each other, if they don’t hurt other people and don’t lie, and love their mommy and daddy and family, when a person dies, they get to go to paradise. Some people call it Heaven. That is the place that God lives. It is like the hotel you stayed at in Portugal, filled with singing birds, beautiful flowers, waterfalls, happy people singing and resting.
As I drive on West Street, minding the traffic, I can feel him thinking. I am so preoccupied in the moment that I almost rear-end the driver in front of me as I peered at Cole’s puzzled face from the rearview mirror.
But if you can’t see the spirit, how do you know it is there? he says.
That is a good question. Can you see the wind? I ask,
No, he says.
But you can feel the wind, can’t you? I pull over and stop.
That is kind of the same as with the spirit. Not everyone is always good at feeling someone else’s spirit, but some people can. I know that my grandmother and my mommy are dead, but I can sometimes feel their spirit. Sometimes I think I hear them talking to me, but there is no sound. I think it is their spirit.
We start up and drive until we reach the parking lot at Wegmans’. Thank God. I had promised I would buy him some PEZ candy. I’m hoping we can change the subject. But normally one to hop out of his toddler seat, Cole just sits there, pensive, sipping on apple juice from a box. Looking perplexed, he says,
But if everybody’s spirit is in paradise, doesn’t it get crowded?
I don’t know if everyone who dies has their spirit go to paradise. I also don’t know if the spirit of a person takes up a lot of space. Maybe it is smaller than a raindrop. Think how many raindrops are in a cloud in the sky.
By now I am feeling so far down the rabbit hole that I cannot see daylight. I am beginning to be intellectually suffocated. So, I pause and think:
Well, you see, some people when they are alive can be mean, and they do bad things, like hurt other people, tell lies, steal things from other people, hate their parents and family without ever feeling sorry that they are doing bad things. Those people, when they die, are also buried under the ground, and their spirit they say falls down a tunnel to a place called “Hell.” It is nowhere near paradise. Some people say it is deep inside the middle of the earth, but I don’t think anyone knows. Anyway, they say it is not a nice place. It is dark, very noisy and smoky, and very very hot because there are always fires burning down there. The spirits of people who are bad when they are alive leave their bodies and their spirits are stuck in Hell for always. They say people in Hell never sleep because of the loud noise, bad smells and all the smoke down there.
I come around the other side of the car, open his door and begin to unstrap him from the toddler seat. He just sits there and looks up at me.
But Papi, if God lives in heaven and paradise, who lives in Hell?
That is another good question. There was an angel who was once one of God’s helpers and became a bad angel. He got mad at God and his spirit was lost in Hell. They call that angel “The Devil.”
Now I am confused. Daddy took me to see the Jersey Devils play hockey. They were all alive and they won the game. So, is there more than one devil?
I dry-swallowed and took two deep breaths.
Well, you see, that was the name of the team, just like the name “The Dallas Cowboys,” they are not really “cowboys.” People give names to sports teams. The Jersey Devils were just hockey players. It’s just the name they gave the team.
I grab his hand and we walk into the market. It is now beginning to snow. He stops abruptly and turns around to look behind him.
Cole? Are you okay?
Papi, I think I just felt a spirit!
Well, maybe you did.
We walk through the automatic doors. The blast of heated air is comforting. Inside the store he walks over to the candy isle.
But Papi, is Sumi’s spirit in heaven after her body died and we buried it?
She sure was a good little dog, I say. I think so. Probably.
But what about my fish that died? Can you go to heaven if your body goes in the trash?