The Perfect American Family

The Perfect American Family

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

The Perfect American Family

One of the virtues of being very young is that you don’t let the facts get in the way of your imagination.

~Sam Levenson

It is 10:30 on a perfect Saturday morning and we are, for the moment, the perfect American family. My wife has taken our six-year-old to his first piano lesson. Our 14-year-old has not yet roused from his slumber. The four-year-old watches tiny, anthropomorphic beings hurl one another from cliffs in the other room. I sit at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.

Aaron Malachi, the four-year-old, apparently bored by the cartoon carnage and the considerable personal power obtained by holding the television’s remote control, enters my space.

“I’m hungry,” he says.

“Want some more cereal?”

“No.”

“Want some yogurt?”

“No.”

“Want some eggs?”

“No. Can I have some ice cream?”

“No.”

For all I know, ice cream may be far more nourishing than

processed cereal or antibiotic-laden eggs but, according to my cultural values, it is wrong to have ice cream at 10:45 on a Saturday morning.

Silence. About four seconds. “Daddy, we have very much of life left, don’t we?”

“Yes, we have lots of life left, Aaron.”

“Me and you and Mommy?”

“That’s right.”

“And Isaac?”

“Yes.”

“And Ben?”

“Yes. You and me and Mommy and Isaac and Ben.”

“We have very much of life left. Until all the people die.”

“What do you mean?”

“Until all the people die and the dinosaurs come back.”

Aaron sits down on the table, cross-legged like a Buddha, in the center of my newspaper.

“What do you mean, Aaron, ‘until all the people die’?”

“You said everybody dies. When everybody dies, then the dinosaurs will come back. The cavemen lived in caves, dinosaur caves. Then the dinosaurs came back and squished ’em.”

I realize that already for Aaron life is a limited economy, a resource with a beginning and an end. He envisions himself and us somewhere along that trajectory, a trajectory that ends in uncertainty and loss.

I am faced with an ethical decision. What should I do now? Should I attempt to give him God, salvation, eternity? Should I toss him some spiel like, “Your body is just a shell and after you die, we will all be together in spirit forever”?

Or should I leave him with his uncertainty and his anxiety because I think it’s real? Should I try to make him an anxious existentialist or should I try to make him feel better?

I don’t know. I stare at the newspaper. The Celtics are consistently losing on Friday nights. Larry Bird is angry at somebody, but I can’t see who, because Aaron’s foot is in the way. I don’t know but my neurotic, addictive, middle-class sensibility is telling me that this is a very important moment, a moment when Aaron’s ways of constructing his world are being formed. Or maybe my neurotic, addictive, middle-class sensibility is just making me think that. If life and death are an illusion, then why should I trifle with how someone else understands them?

On the table Aaron plays with an “army guy,” raising his arms and balancing him on his shaky legs. It was Kevin McHale that Larry Bird was angry at. No, not Kevin McHale, it was Jerry Sichting. But Jerry Sichting is no longer with the Celtics. Whatever happened to Jerry Sichting? Everything dies; everything comes to an end. Jerry Sichting is playing for Sacramento or Orlando or he has disappeared.

I should not trifle with how Aaron understands life and death because I want him to have a solid sense of structure, a sense of the permanence of things. It’s obvious what a good job the nuns and priests did with me. It was agony or bliss. Heaven and hell were not connected by long distance service. You were on God’s team or you were in the soup, and the soup was hot. I don’t want Aaron to get burned, but I want him to have a strong frame. The neurotic but unavoidable anxiety can come later.

Is that possible? It is possible to have a sense that God, spirit, karma, Y*H*W*H, something — is transcendent, without traumatizing the presentness of a person, without beating it into them? Can we have our cake and eat it too, ontologically speaking? Or is their fragile sensibility, their “there-ness,” sundered by such an act?

Sensing a slight increase in agitation on the table, I know that Aaron is becoming bored with his guy. With an attitude of drama benefiting the moment, I clear my throat and begin with a professional tone.

“Aaron, death is something that some people believe....”

“Dad,” Aaron interrupts, “could we play a video game? It’s not a very violent game,” he explains, hands gesticulating. “It’s not like a killing game. The guys just kind of flop over.”

“Yes,” I say with some relief, “let’s play video games. But first there’s something else we have to do.”

“What?” Aaron stops and turns from where he has run, already halfway to the arcade.

“First, let’s have some ice cream.”

Another perfect Saturday for a perfect family. For now.

~Michael Murphy

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