Why was the radio announcer saying nice things about Mister Rogers this morning? Why were they interviewing his colleagues? They just did that a few months ago, when he retired. Hoping against hope that it wasn't for the reason I feared it might be, I listened as the four cats circled me, watching closely while I spooned food into their dishes.
But it was. "Fred Rogers died yesterday," he said, "at the age of seventy-four."
Oh, no. I paused, my spoon poised above one of the four feeding dishes, while reproachful cats circled me, scolding. Then I sighed and continued to spoon tuna into the bowls.
When my children had reached the end of their emotional ropes and nothing I did seemed to sweeten them up, he usually could. "Let's watch Rodge," I would say-Anna called him "Rodge"-and pretty soon there he would be, taking off his suit jacket and putting on his sweater, taking off his wingtips and putting on his sneakers, feeding his fish, listening respectfully while a guest fireman or cook or nurse or teacher talked. Gently-so gently that crankier humorists have parodied him for years-he would introduce topics likely to trouble a four-year-old: whether scary things on television are real, whether people who leave will come back, whether it's all right to get angry.
Often they didn't want to watch Mister Rogers: "No!" they would howl in noisy despair. They didn't want to feel better. They wanted to stay distraught-odd, that: sometimes we would rather remain in our agitation than be guided out of it. Then it was time for a nice bath, no matter what the hour: a change of pace, a fresh page upon which to start a new chapter. They must have known, somewhere in their angry little hearts, that it would work, for they never offered more than token refusals, and soon two sweet-smelling little girls would be sitting quietly, watching the toy train chug across the television screen into the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
I had not known he was ill. I suppose his retirement not long ago had something to do with that, and that he preferred not to say so publicly. Always looking out for our feelings, Rodge, even at the end.
He was in my line of work. Ordained a Presbyterian minister, he spent most of his career being Mister Rogers on the television. He didn't have a congregation in a church building. He didn't speak to his young audience about God, not directly, although he sometimes did to audiences of their parents and grandparents. But, if it is a pastor's work to lead people into reconciliation and truth, he was a fine pastor, church or no church.
Did my baby who died go on to grow in heaven? These and other absurdities crowd the minds of parents like myself who have lost children. It doesn't matter much that we know heaven is not like earth-that doesn't stop us. We imagine it in the only terms we have available. I doubt that God minds much: it doesn't hurt God and it comforts us. And so my silent little one is, for me, an eternal toddler, one of a throng of happy children in a bright and beautiful place, rather like a perfect nursery school. Healthy and at play in the sunny rooms, in the grassy playground, on the swings, shrieking and laughing.
Do we have jobs in heaven? If we do, I believe I know where Mister Rogers works.