I love hearing a good sob story. Like stories about when you found out Santa isn’t real, or pathetic reasons you got fired from your job. Or how you found out that everyone will die. Here’s my story.
I was maybe six or so. I remember my family and I took a trip to some historical park. I don’t remember where. Over the years I’ve accepted that we drove up from Southern California to Washington State. I don’t remember that trip if it ever happened, but I remember being behind the backseat of whatever station wagon we were driving through whatever historical park we were visiting.
The following moment was so surreal that all else faded from memory.
I just remember my mom, dad, and sister were in the car. And maybe my grandparents.
The historical park (or wherever we were) had several bronze statues of historical figures. You know, those eleven-foot statues set up on brick cylinders? I remember looking up at one of them (probably of Thomas Jefferson, or some colonial figure because he had the ruffles and the tricorne hat) and wondering how a statue is made.
I was curious enough to ask about it in the back of the car. “How do they make those statues?” I asked. “Who are they?”
“They’re of famous people who’ve died,” came the response from the front.
Now, before I go any further, I need to explain the difference between what parents say and what children hear. Observe:
Parent says: “Don’t touch that glass doll.” Child hears: “Touch any other glass doll.”
Parent says: “If you pull on the Christmas tree it will fall over and kill you.” Child hears: “If you pull on the Christmas tree it’s going to make a mess and there might be blood!”
So when my parents said that those statues were of famous people who died, I heard, “When you die, you get turned into a statue.”
Immediately I imagined being encased in an iron cast for all eternity. Then I asked the next fatal question: “How did they die?”
The answer: “Some got sick, some got old, some died in wars.”
(At this point, I need to remind you that I didn’t know yet that death was inevitable. I thought those were just really unlucky bastards who struck out big time. Like, don’t go to war, duh. Go to the doctor, duh.)
Then I said, “That’s sad.” I didn’t mean it was sad that they died. I meant that it was sad that they were encased in an iron shell, tormented by eternal stillness and stiff muscles for all eternity like Han Solo.
Then someone said: “It’ll happen to everyone sooner or later.”
At this point, the violins I was hearing were interrupted with a scratchy record and my eyes popped open. “What?” I asked.
“Well, everyone dies.” I wished adults really did sound like the Peanuts grown-ups so I didn’t have to hear that.
“You mean, you’re doing to die, Dad?”
“And you, Mom?”
I asked everyone by name if they were going to die. And then I asked the inevitable: “Am I going to die?”
“Someday. But not for a long, long time.”
I didn’t care that it wasn’t going to be for a long time. All I cared about was that one day I was going to be turned into one of those statues, helpless as I watched people walk past in droves pointing at me, birds pooping on me, being left out in the cold every night.
So the violins started back up in my head and I burst out in tears. That’s pretty much all I remember from that whole trip.
You know what I did next?
After my family told me everything would be okay and that people don’t turn into statues when they die (unless you’re in Narnia), I then started counting all the possible ways people could die.
Sickness. Old age. Getting hit by a car. Flying into a window (because my knowledge of death was limited to dogs, squirrels, and birds apparently). I also included drowning and holding your breath too long for the fun of it and stubbing your toe so bad that you die.
I came up with about twenty-seven ways a person could die. And these were twenty-seven things I tried to avoid doing from then on out.
You know what I should have done instead? I should have thought about all the different ways to live.
Twenty-seven years later I guess I still have time to change my thinking. You know, before I turn into a statue. So here’s my new list:
Ways to Live: