This is a guest post by Anne Crumpacker. Anne is a former public school teacher with a passion for fostering critical thinking and innovation in young people. Her blog SocraticMama.com is a collection of snippets, treats, and tales chosen to nurture imagination and logic for both children and their grown ups.
Why did you decide it was important to ask a question of Hitchens?
Because I had just found out that he was dying, and he’s a brilliant man. And I felt that his knowledge of the world shouldn’t be wasted, and that someone should continue what he started.
Where will he go when he dies?
The adults in the editorial office exchanged shocked looks. I don’t know what motivated the reporter to ask a nine-year-old such an indelicate question, but I do know that I am responsible for her brutal answer. As an atheist, I had taught my daughter that we all go “nowhere” when we die. And she understood that Christopher Hitchens would not be an exception.
In October our family attended the Texas Freethought Convention, where Richard Dawkins presented his eponymous award to Hitchens, then under treatment for stage four esophageal cancer. Hitchens was not slated to speak that night, but felt strong enough to make a few short remarks and field questions from the audience. My daughter Mason worked her way to the microphone and asked, “What books should I read?”
It was then that Hitchens, moved, asked to meet with her after the presentation, despite his obvious fatigue.
The story of their impromptu exchange began on Dr. Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and then went viral. Readers delighted in the “soft-side” of Hitchens, but they shouldn’t have been so amazed. Although “Hitch” had publicly cultivated an image of a biting social critic — privately he had three children of his own. I don’t know anything about Hitchens’ personal life or inner thoughts, but as a parent I hope he loved his children, his children loved him in return, and he had talked to them about his own belief that we go “nowhere” when we die. All responsible parents discuss mortality their children. It is our obligation when we bring them into this ephemeral mess called “life.” That way, from early childhood, we understand that the night is coming.
When Mason was born I made her three silent promises: to love her, care for her, and always tell her the truth. I suspect I am not am unique in these pledges. As a result, I have been savagely honest with her throughout the years, even when it was very difficult. I began as a Christian parent, but as Mason grew and started to question me about life, my faith crumbled. I tried the old stories I had grown up on, but I found myself admitting they no longer rang true. My questions trumped the old answers and I was unwilling to explain the mysteries of life with spiritual metaphors. But, how could I talk honestly about the certitude of death with my only child?
One of the simplest ways of teaching small children about death is allowing them to care for living things. By age seven, Mason had already killed several plants by neglect and raised ants, ladybugs, butterflies, goldfish, and frogs. That Christmas, Santa Claus brought Mason a small, white mouse. She named him “Blinker” after a character in a children’s novel. Blinker was smelly, but he never failed to entertain. In February of the following year, I went upstairs to clean Mason’s room and found Blinker in a fetal ball, weakened, but still breathing. I took him out of his cage and held him in the palm of my hand. I tried to warm him and give him some water, but he closed his eyes. His tiny paw trembled and then he was gone. It was as if he had held on until he could be petted one last time.
At first I cried softly, but soon I was sobbing. My husband and Mason overheard me and rushed in to find me standing with Blinker still in my hand in near hysterics. Naturally, Mason was upset that her mouse was dead, but my overreaction alarmed her more. In January I had lost a good friend, a mother of one of Mason’s classmates, to cancer. The death of this tiny creature forced me to confront a multitude of painful truths I had been avoiding.
It may sound absurd, but I knew there was no mouse heaven. Blinker was a dead mouse. He had gone ”nowhere.” And, since I accept that we are an evolved species of mammals, it followed that my friend had gone “nowhere” as well.
I suppose you can be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife, but I have yet to meet one who does. Of course, I don’t know what happens after death, but to my mind eternal life seems too good to be true.
I was not living as an open atheist until Mason’s meeting with Christopher Hitchens. I would probably still be closeted if the Houston Chronicle hadn’t reported our full names, but it doesn’t matter. I am happy finally expressing my doubts openly. It is interesting, however, that the single most upsetting part of my worldview to my friends and family is my disbelief in any sort of hereafter. It seems fine to deny the Creation, the Flood, the Nativity, and even the Resurrection, but how can I believe in the Nietzschean abyss? How? It is immaterial — the abyss believes in me.
I want to promise Mason that I will always be there for her, but my atheism doesn’t allow me that comfort. All I can hope to achieve is to prepare her for our ultimate separation. We speak of courage, and we relish our brief time together. I teach her that life is about connecting and letting go. Our community can take comfort in Christopher Hitchens’ example of how to confront death with dignity and rationalism.
This Christmas, Mason has asked for a hamster. Santa Claus will not disappoint her.
[Note from Hemant: In case you’re wondering what Mason has to say about all of this, she sent me this statement:
In my heart, when I first heard that Mr. Hitchens had passed away, I was too shocked to speak. I would like to say that even though Mr. Hitchens has passed away, he still exists in our hearts and minds and, of course, through his writing.