We always woke up early in Ireland. It was 5 or 6 in the morning, and our parents wouldn’t be up for hours. My sister and I were sharing a room. I was 6 and she was 3. My mom said we were “thick as thieves.” It was June, but it was foggy and cold out, so we were wrapped in thick quilts like peasants in the middle of a long-ago wintertime. I was fully awake, but getting out of bed seemed like it would violate an unspoken rule. All I could do was sit up and think.
“What do you think it’s like to be dead?”
My sister grimaced.
“I think it’s just black, for a really really long time. And you can’t talk to anyone,” I told her.
What was it like to be dead? That morning was 15 years ago, 4,000 miles away. I don’t remember my first thoughts on the subject. I had no great epiphany. But there were quiet moments on that trip that drew me full-on into the darkness. And when I was in the darkness, or it was around me, the same image always lay suspended in my head. A photo of my great-grandmother who died just after I was born. Her hair was the same shade of gray as steel wool, and she was on a beach, wearing a blue cardigan, squinting as she smiled. It looked like she was ready to rub the sand off your nose, kiss you on the cheek and give you a cookie. To me, she represented all the dead.
And here I was, on the little island where she and the rest of my ancestors were buried. Maybe their ghosts stirred up my thoughts. But they could have kept asleep and the darkness still would have come, for signs of decay were all around. We saw so many ruins on that trip: old abbeys and churches from the Middle Ages, and Celtic burial mounds and settlements from the millennia before. Where were their inhabitants now? Had it been just black for them for thousands of years, so long that they had gone insane speaking to themselves in their strange languages, with no way to understand where they were, what had become of them or how much time had passed?
“When I die...”
Later that summer, we were back home. It was probably July, but it could have been September. After dinner, my dad took my sisters and me to the park. He pulled my sister in a wagon. When we got there, I climbed up the slides while my dad looked for cicada shells.
But summer twilight troubled me. The first pale shade of night. Seeing the moon and the stars while the sky stayed blue, I was fearful. The suggestion of oncoming darkness was worse than the eventual darkness itself. I didn’t want to be outside with other people anymore. So I walked home and went into my room. I sat on the carpet and tried to play with my action figures. But I could only think about what would happen when I died. I was playing with a Superman action figure — I had never been a fan of Superman, and had gotten him for my birthday, but the thought of dying and leaving him behind was unbearable.
I looked at him and cried. “If I die, there will be no one to play with you.”
“If I die, I don’t want you to get sold at a garage sale.”
A few days later, I was sitting with my mom at the kitchen table. I was reading a book while she clipped grocery store coupons out of fliers. The light was really bright. I finally decided to tell her.
“I’m really worried about when I die. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I started crying. “When I die I won’t able to see my friends. Or watch movies, or play games...”
I don’t remember what my mom said to me. I think it was consoling. She talked about how she thought the same things when she was a kid, but she was too scared to tell anyone, and it was good that I talked to her about it.
All of that fear, and only a child’s mind to deal with it.