Blair is a small town about an hour from Omaha, set into the green fields, low hills, and open plains of eastern Nebraska. Most of the people who live in Blair also work there, as farmers, schoolteachers, or shopkeepers. A few commute to a larger city or neighboring town for employment or travel to visit family.
My children's great-grandmother, Laura, a woman of ninety-five, lives in Blair at a nursing home. She has accomplished much in her long life, including raising three children with her husband and then without him, helping to run a chicken farm, and teaching elementary school. She is my children's oldest living relative.
She is also very frail, thinks of herself not only as living but also as dying. "It is time for my soul to leave my body," she said once. Neither her vision nor her balance is good. She can no longer live independently and now exists in that time of life between life and death, and has the wisdom to know it.
Once while visiting her, my daughters and I took a walk on the parklike grounds of the nursing home, which sat near the edge of town. We had just come downstairs--the children and I needed a little time walking outdoors after spending an hour in Laura's small room. The three of us were saddened, as we walked, by how quickly Great-grandma's soul did seem to be leaving her body--almost like air gradually leaking out of a balloon. Her body's skin was shriveling and pale, her presence in the teaming, vital world contracting before our eyes--and yet we also simultaneously experienced a different emotion that was difficult to describe, almost a mysterious sense of anticipation. We knew something incredible awaited Great-grandma, though we didn't know what it was.
Davita, who was eight, asked me, "Where will Great-grandma's body go when she dies?"
"Probably into the ground," I replied.
"What about her soul?"
"Her soul will be out there, all around?" Davita asked.
"Maybe." I smiled. "We don't exactly know what happens to the soul after death."
Gabrielle, almost twelve, had been chewing on the moist end of a long blade of grass. Now she entered the conversation.
"Dad," she said, "what is the soul made of?" She had been to Christian and Jewish Sunday schools over the years. My wife, Gail, is of Nebraskan Protestant stock; I am of New York Jewish origin; our daughters have thus heard both Christian and Jewish answers to questions about the soul. Because we have lived overseas and are interested in world religions, they've heard Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and other responses as well. Yet I don't think she had ever heard an answer to this specific question. It was a somewhat unusual one: what material is the human soul composed of?
My instantaneous answer was to stall. "What do you mean?" I asked.
She thought for a moment. "What's a soul made of?" She did her best to ask again a question that I had no answer to at that moment.
I responded honestly, "I don't really know. I'm not sure anybody does."
"Well, but I know," she said.
I raised my eyebrows, amused. "Really?"
"Yes. It's made of God."
"I guess I can't say 'God is made of the soul,' can I?" she thought aloud, applying simple logic.
"You could actually," I said, "and you're most certainly right. But it wouldn't answer your question the way you want it answered, would it?"
"No," she agreed.
"When Great-grandma dies," Davita said, interrupting our intellectual discourse, "will all the lights go out in her soul?"
"I don't know for sure," I responded. "But every wise teacher from all over the world seems to agree that her body will become dark when her soul leaves."
"That's what her soul is made of, then," Gabrielle said triumphantly. "It's made of light."
"Yes. Light." Gabrielle, still a little girl at eleven, yet beginning to develop the mind of an adult, looked at me with certainty. And now, I must admit, behind my own eyes, my mind began to whirr at a fast rate. Thoughts from the Bhagavad Gita, the Sutras, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, flew into my mind. "Be ye lamps upon the world." "You are light for all the world." "Light particles are energy -- they cannot be destroyed." "The brain on a PET scan shows life because it lights up."
Pieces of Newtonian and quantum physics, like children's rhymes, replayed themselves in my mind. Einstein's physics and principles of neuroscience tugged at me. Was this an epiphany? What if Gabrielle had stumbled onto a linking point between the human and the divine conversation, there in Blair, Nebraska, on an afternoon filled with feelings both of life and of death?
What was I thinking? I backtracked. Wait a minute. Was I, in an instant, conceiving of a way to provide a philosophical, religious, and scientific proof of the soul? Had I arrived at this idea by having a conversation with my children? If I had, how might this proof apply to children? It had grown, after all, from the wisdom of children.
I led the girls back into the nursing home and up to room 214.
"Where did you go?" Grandma Peggy asked. She sat on the edge of her mother's bed, holding the aging matriarch's tiny hand.
"Just walking and talking outside," Gabrielle reported.
"We talked about you," Davita said, coming up to Great-grandma and giving her a kiss.
Instinctively wary that Davita might say something awkward like "we were talking about your dying," I said aloud, "We were actually being kind of philosophical--we were talking about the human soul and children."
Grandma Peggy ruffled Davita's hair. "You're a good soul, aren't you?"
Davita nodded, giving her grandma a hug.
Great-grandma Laura, looking first at my two daughters with her light blue, watery eyes, then looking to Gail and me, commanded, "You take good care of these two sweet souls, okay?"
"They are beautiful young lights, aren't they?" I said, my mind still on my thoughts of moments ago.
"Yes," she murmured. "They are. God lives in your children."
"We'll take good care of them," Gail assured her grandmother. I nodded my agreement, looking from my position at the foot of the bed into my two daughters' eyes, so beautifully lit from within--lit by the light of their own natures, by their sympathy for their elderly and dying progenitor, and by the light of God.
Everywhere around me hovered not only the souls of the dying but also those of young children. In my mind came a kind of verbal replay of the words "you're a good soul," "these two sweet souls," "God lives in your children."
In these later moments of their long lives, Grandma and Great-grandma saw so clearly that near them stood not just "kids" but living, breathing souls--discernible aspects of God.