I divided up the ham fried rice and sweet and sour chicken into three equal portions and served them to my sons on small plates, keeping the larger portion for myself. The restaurant was eerily quiet, just two other people quietly munching their food across the space.
My sons tore into their food with their usual enthusiasm, all cuteness and wonder at the world. My four year old, A, likes to play up being helpless when he wants attention. “Daddy, the bites are too big,” he mutters, though the bite-sized portions are the size of a thumbnail each. My seven year old, J, dramatizes everything. “Oh my gosh, this food is so good!”, though at best it was just barely noteworthy.
And here we were, a gay dad and his two boys have Easter dinner in a nearly empty Chinese place in a back neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah. And it was perfect.
We munched quietly for a bit before A pointed over my shoulder. “Dad, who’s that fat guy?”
I was initially horrified, thinking he was talking about an overweight man behind me. I turned around to see a large Buddha statue across the countertop. He sat, his usual mirthful smile carved into place, his eyes closed, legs folded underneath him, his hands comfortably resting. He was surrounded by carved wealth, coins and pearls and gold nuggets. No wonder he was happy. There were several miniature candy bars stacked around him, as well as loose change, quarters and dimes and pennies.
“Who’s Buddha?” A asked, dropping more rice than he was chewing.
“Well, a lot of people believe in Jesus, right? Many other people believe in Buddha.”
J nodded. “We learned about him in school. Americans believe in Jesus and Chinese people believe in Buddha.”
“Well, not quite. Some people in America believe in Buddha, and some believe in Jesus who live in China.”
A furrowed his brow. “Maybe everyone should just believe in Jesus.”
Oh great, a young Republican in the making, I laughed to myself. “Well, buddy, everybody has a right to believe in whoever they like. Jesus, or God, or Buddha, or Allah, or Jehovah. There are lots of different kinds of beliefs.”
“Well, I probably just believe in Jesus.”
I scratched his head. “That is just fine with me.”
A’s cheeks were full as he continued, eager to share his vast Biblical knowledge.
“Did you know that Jesus had a mom named Mary and a stepdad named Joseph, but his real dad was Heavenly Father. That means he had a human for a mom and a god for a dad. I’m glad that my mom and my dad are both human, dad, cause if you were a God I would never get to see you.”
I have cultivated a special way of laughing around my sons because they don’t like to be laughed at. I clench my stomach tightly, close my mouth and eyes, and laugh through my nose, soft, my stomach usually shaking. My word, these precious kids and their amazing little words.
“Yeah, buddy, I’m very glad to be a human, too.”
A kept yammering, not slowing his eating at all. “Do you believe in Jesus, too, dad?”
“I used to.”
“But now you don’t?”
I shrugged. “Just cause, buddy.”
“Yeah, but why?”
They were both looking at me now. I’m regularly flummoxed by my sons, never quite knowing how to answer those questions about where babies come from or why some people are homeless. I always want to be direct without being too grown up.
I thought for a moment. The truth is, I no longer use labels. I used to be fiercely and defensively Mormon. Now, I don’t really have an affiliation. I try to be a good person with integrity who is kind to others and responsible for my choices and actions, but I don’t like the labels at this point, and I don’t go to any church. My sons, meanwhile, go to the Unitarian Church now with their mother, and most of their family on either side is Mormon.
“Well, some people are Buddhist, some are Mormon or Methodist. Some are Muslim or Jewish. Everybody is different. I guess I’m atheist.”
“Well, that means I don’t believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or anyone. I just like to be a good person.” There was a moment of silence as we chewed our food. “Today is Easter, right? What is Easter about?”
J smiled. “Family.”
A shot his hand up in the air. “Yeah, and eggs and chocolate and the Easter bunny!”
“Easter is in the spring. We use symbols of spring, like grass and baby chicks and bunnies and eggs, all signs of life and a new season. We celebrate it by dying eggs and hunting baskets, but it is really a Christian holiday, all about new life. Do you know what happened to Jesus on Easter?”
J got a sad look on his face. “He died. I don’t like it when people die.”
“Yes, but then they put his body in a tomb, and three days later, he came alive again.”
A punched his hand in the air. “He’s like an Avenger!”
My stomach shook with laughter again. “Yeah, he kind of is.” And I thought back to the Super Best Friends episodes on South Park, where various god figures band together to fight crime.
J looked across the table. “Dad, pass the fing-fongs.”
I laughed out loud this time and handed him the won-tons. We finished our meal, and on our way out of the restaurant, we stopped to admire the Buddha statue again.
“He sure has a lot of money,” J observed.
“Yeah, buddy, they all do,” I muttered to myself.
As I strapped my kids into the car, A placed a hand on my cheek, turning my face toward him. “I’m glad you aren’t a god, daddy. I like having Easter with you.”