As I pushed my three-year-old son’s dresser drawer to a close, the framed army photograph of my grandfather tipped over and landed face-down with a thump.
I propped it back up, blew a piece of dust from the glass, and said, “Sorry, Papa.”
Miles looked for a few long seconds at the 1940s photo — the perfect wave of my grandfather’s hair, his tan army-issue shirt, the eyes that were even bluer in real life than in that colorized photograph.
“Is he still real?” Miles asked.
My heart quickened with the sad remembrance that Miles’s great-grandfather passed away 15 months before my son was born. My grandfather would have loved this funny, expressive boy. Miles would have loved Papa’s gentle spirit and good humor, his twinkly eyes and the chin that went on forever.
I stood by the dresser wondering how to reply to my three-year-old’s adult question.
We’ve been talking a lot about what’s real and what’s not around here lately.
Outer space? Real.
Aliens? Mom hasn’t seen one just yet.
Monsters? Yes, but not the kind in your closet.
Mountain Lions? Real, but they like deer more than boys.
Santa Claus? What do you think, Son?
I thought about my grandfather’s low voice and sun-spotted hands. Real. I thought of his rounded shoulders and the smell of Brut cologne. Real. I thought of him on his motorized scooter and in his recliner and in the hospital bed in those final days. Real, real, and real.
I thought of his real ashes in the real cemetery. His real smell on his real sweatshirt that I put on sometimes when I am missing him. The missing is so very real.
I thought of others. My teacher. My cousin. My dear friend. My sweet old dog. They surrounded me at the dresser. I saw their faces and heard their voices.
Miles, tired of waiting for an answer, walked out of the room.
Two years ago, I attended the funeral of my dear friend who died in his early thirties. At the end of the service, I lingered for some time with a group who couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the funeral home. My friend’s nephew, about three years old at the time, was present.
As we slowly made our way out of the room where our loved one rested, the boy turned to his mother and asked, “Mom, are we leaving Uncle behind?”
This Saturday, on Christmas Eve, my family is coming over to celebrate.
The adults will drink Swedish Glogg and play board games as the children sip hot cocoa in their Christmas jammies and lose themselves in The Polar Express, the story of a young boy on a locomotive to the North Pole on a quest to find out whether Santa Claus is real.
In a world of disappointment and unbelief, the story’s protagonist is torn between his longing for truth and his desire for belief. In one scene, he converses with a hobo on the roof of the train about what’s real and what isn’t.
Is Santa Claus real?
Is this train real?
Are we going to the real North Pole?
At the end of the scene, the hobo walks away from the boy, vanishing into the night, and the boy is left to decide for himself what, if anything, is real.
Later, the boy meets Santa face to face and is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. He asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh, and is enamored with its bright, clear ring.
The next morning, at home on Christmas Day, the bell is rung in the boy’s living room. To the boy and his sister, the sound is pure magic until his father comments that the bell must be broken – he cannot hear its ringing.
Truth collides with trust and the boy is left alone in the room with his bell and his belief.
We hear the voice of the narrator, the boy grown into a man, say that over the years the bell has fallen silent for his friends and even for his sister, but the bell still rings for all who truly believe.
The bell rings for all who believe.
The bell rings only for those who believe.
Belief is a choice. Is real a choice, too? Is it something we get to decide?
If the dust of my grandfather is still on the collar of this sweatshirt, does that make him real? A stray hair from my dog in the corner of the living room. Real, right? My cousin’s handwriting in his college notebooks? My friend’s songs that we all play back when we miss him?
If the absolute magic of Christmas is in the room as I place presents under the tree, is Santa Claus real too? Do we ever un-believe something? Someone?
If something is real for a moment, is it real forever?
A story. A song. Light falling across a cheekbone. The rhythm of one’s steps. The sound of sleeping breath. Striped packages on Christmas morning.
Does remembering make it real again?
Hear me, Sweet Boy. We are not leaving your uncle behind in this dimly lit funeral home. Not ever.
The ones we love are never left behind. They’re never un-believed or forgotten. They don’t vanish from the tops of trains or disappear into holes in the earth. Your uncle is coming with us. They all are.
The grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The mothers and fathers. Sons and daughters. The brothers and sisters and cousins and friends. The dogs and cats – they’re coming too.
They’ll be here for Christmas. Their smells and their dust, their twinkles, their stories and bad jokes, their lisps and vast chins and crooked fingers, their smiles and poems and songs. It’s all here.
They’re all here.
Yes, Miles. Yes. He is still real.
The ones we love will always be real.