It’s our normal bedtime routine, which means I’m rubbing my 7-year-old son’s back and crooning an off-key version of “Sweet Baby James.” By this time of day, I’m spent, and we’re in the homestretch.

The day’s end glimmers just ahead, and I can already taste the sweet relief of some serious Netflix time. As if he can smell my desperation for him to fall asleep, Max gets a case of the bedtime sillies, injecting butt jokes and Tae Kwon Do moves into the mellow ambience I’m trying to create.

I make it almost to the first chorus when Max asks, “So, do you know where your brother is?”

My hand freezes on the jut of his shoulder blade.

“Do you mean—do I know where his body is?” I ask. The brother he’s asking about died in 1999, ten years before Max was born.

Apparently, this isn’t going to be a quick bedtime. Or a silly one.

“Yeah,” he says, rolling over to face me. The last drops of sunlight illuminate his now-narrow face. I live in perpetual surprise as more and more of the baby Max once was evaporates. In this last year, his limbs have lengthened, and his muscles flash just beneath his skin like a lion’s. The bookshelf beside his bed now boasts a row of chapter books instead of the picture books that used to populate it.

“OK,” I say. I take a breath to buy a pinch of time before continuing. “So, my brother’s body was cremated. Do you remember what that means? Like Darth Vader at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’?” He nods his head. I wonder if the idea of cremation is scary to him—when I think about the concept too hard, I shiver. But his face doesn’t appear scared—it looks open, expectant.

I want to shield my son from all the judgments and assumptions we sheathe ourselves in as adults.

I explain that my parents spread some of my brother’s ashes at places that were special to them, and the rest of the ashes are at my parents’ house.  

“Oh. Does he have a gravestone?” he asks.

“Well, we have a gravestone back in Alaska that has his name along with a bunch of other family members, like my grandparents,” I tell him.

“OK,” he says. We lay there for a few quiet moments, and I wonder if it’s safe to launch back into “Sweet Baby James.” But I stop myself, noticing my urge to change the subject or disturb the thick, pooling silence. Despite my desire to race across the finish line of bedtime, this is important. He’s been mentioning my brother, the uncle he’s never met, a lot lately.

When he brought my brother up a few days ago, I asked Max if he thought about him often. “Of course I do, Mom. Because I see you every day, and he’s your brother!” he said. I was floored.

At seven, my boy is changing so very fast. He is full of surprises, from his sudden fascination with birds of prey to this mysterious space he holds for my brother. Part of the heartbreak of my brother’s death was realizing that if I had children, they would never know him. I imagined when they were adults, perhaps these hazy, future-children would be interested enough to know my brother’s story, but I’d assumed kids were naturally self-centered and wouldn’t show interest until adulthood.

I was wrong.

“Do you feel sad when we talk about my brother?” I ask him. His curiosity, his openness, is contagious. Instead of getting lost in my own emotion, or thinking this talk is too dark for bedtime, I want to hold a mirror up and ask him what it’s like for him to talk about death.

“No, but I bet you and Baba and Papa are really sad,” he says. His face looks so serious. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to teach him about kindness, so often wondering if I was doing it right. Now, with no warning, he’s shining compassion on me. My chest fills with a tender pride.

“Yes. We were very, very sad when he died,” I say. I give him a gentle smile. “It’s been a long time now. I still feel sad sometimes, but there’s also so much good in my life.” I want to teach him one of the hardest and most compelling lessons of my life: humans can hold intense, competing emotions at the same time.

“Like me and Violet,” he says, referring to his little sister.

“Yes, like you and Violet,” I echo. He grins.

“I’m tired,” he announces, turning back over.

As he turns toward his bookshelves, and soon enough, his dreams, I admire the beads of his spine, marveling that his body came from my own. I’m seized by the desire to freeze him so he can hold onto this gorgeous openness, this curiosity, this brave ability to ask the gaping questions about life and death. I want to shield him from all the judgments and assumptions we sheathe ourselves in as adults.

But of course, I can’t. He will continue to lengthen, morph and grow. I can’t freeze him, but I can learn from him. I can borrow the lenses through which he sees the world, and I can rethink the assumptions that I’ve collected in my decades on Earth. I will need this openness, this curiosity. and this courage as he shows me how to let him go.

My hand finds his back, and I start to sing.