Saturday, October 27, 2007

Death Becomes Her

Death is everywhere lately.

In the time since my last post, I attended the funeral of a former colleague and good work-friend. My boss lost a relative and my other co-worker lost two of his family members.

"It comes in threes," is the wisdom I hear around work; an non-sensical expression when you consider how many people die around the world each day. Hell, forget the world. Do you know how many people die each day in Montgomery County, MD every day? I don't. But I'm sure it's a lot more than three. Do you think people in Darfur have this saying? I can just imagine a woman comforting her child saying "It comes in 300's." I don't know, it just seems terribly narcissitic and troublesome to think of God's plan for knocking people off is based on your wireless network's Friends and Family plan.

Anyway, I say all this because my impending death has been a matter of discourse lately and not just because a good friend has passed. No, my death was literally handed to me by my lovely daughter, Harlem. At six, the child is working on becoming the first Black goth girl in history. Not that she's gloomy or wears dark eye shadow, but she's got a real curiosity about death. Not really fear, like say, her fear of trying any healthy foods. Just a constant interest in morbid affairs.

Everything, in her eyes, leads to death.

"What happens if I eat too much junk food?" She quizzed me the other day while I was taking a shit.

"You may get fat and very unhealthy."

"And then what?" She needles.

"Well, you could get very sick."

"And then what?" The child is relentless.

"Well you would have to go the hospital and . . . ."

"And then I would die, right?"

Ok, so the answer is yes. And honestly, I try not to avoid discussing death or any of the hard questions in life, but seriously, it's a bit of a downer when your child peppers you with morbid facts like a pint-sized, afro-puffed grim reaper. I suppose it's healthy that she's not afraid of death yet, nevertheless, it doesn't make for great conversation after a meal at Chic-Fil-A.

Oh, right so Harlem brings me a hand-drawn picture the other day and places it in my hands -- expecting her normal approval for her artistic skill. Of course, I give it to her but not before noticing the image of a man laying in the ground (with a headstone reading R.I.P.) and X's over his eyes.

"Honey," I tread lightly, "can you tell me about this picture?"

Sensing nothing troubling about doodling corpses while watching Spongebob, she happily jumps in my lap and runs down the scene.

"The dead man in the picture is you daddy. And see this little girl . . . . " she points to a girl in a dress, her mouth a huge "O" of shock . . . "That's me when I heard that you died. And then, that's me again crying . . . " The second picture of her is classic cartoon boo-hooing as tears fly off her face like fleas jumping ship.

"Uh, huh." I answered stunned. "And who's this man flying?"

"Oh that's you when you turn into an angel. See the circle." She was referring to the perfect halo around "my" head.

I kissed her head and sent her on her way, stifling the impulse to ask her if she saw how I died or if she drew any pictures of us winning the lottery.

My eyes were drawn back to the angel. To my knowledge, we've never discussed angels. In fact, the BIG question -- "what happens after you die?" -- is sort a mystery for me, and thus, trying to be an upfront and honest parent (except for Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy) I admit my ambiguity about life after death.

"I don't know honey," I've answered several times. "Some people think you go to heaven. Some people think you come back as a new baby and some people think nothing happens." She has yet to ask me what I think, but I assume when asks I'll have an answer (and for those wondering why I didn't include hell in these after life scenarios, it's because I don't believe in such a place and I also think you're a lousy parent if you tell your six year old that they even have the slightest chance of such a fate).

Truth is, I don't know what happens after death and I don't think that any one else does either. We've got theories -- actually, theories can be tested. We've got ideas, hopes, dreams and wishes but no proof beyond the texts we put faith in. But let's be honest with ourselves when we say we "know" that heaven and hell exist when these are concepts handed to us as children. If your parents had brought you up in a faith that dictated that life after death consisted of picking tomatoes on Mars, you'd probably be just as convinced of that scenario than playing harps in God's eternal symphony. I don't say all of this as if I have the answer, cause I don't. I lean toward a big nothing -- a cease of all thought. But I've experienced some ghostly happenings and so I don't rule that out. I'd like to believe my loved ones are experiencing eternal bliss in the clouds (though I guess once we went into space, heaven had to relocate someplace a bit higher otherwise we would have see Uncle Jesse on our way to the moon) but when I consider the source, a book that contends that the devil is real and that a man fit two of every animal on a boat, I come away at the very least skeptical and, most often, dismissive.

But the fact that my daughter already has a working concept that includes angels (which I won't begrudge her) tells me two things:
1. She WANTS to know what happens after the big goodnight
2. It is next to impossible to grow up in the U.S. and not be a borderline Christian. It's like hamburgers and going to the movies -- it's part of the culture. Christianity is in our laws, our speech (Who doesn't say "Jesus Christ!"), our customs ("God bless you."). So her new belief in angels is not exactly shocking and yet, it is.

Overall, I think it's evidence that children will find their own answers if you don't supply them with something satisfactory. Now, my mother-in-law would see this child's instinctual belief in angels ("belief" might be a strong word as she's never discussed angels before or after) as proof of the concept -- something about innocents seeing truths better than adults. Like I said, I can't prove or disprove angels, but Harlem's drawn pictures of flying pigs (seriously) too, but I don't peek up at the sky waiting for pig shit to fall on me.

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