“I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about death lately,” my friend Kate said. It was early September and she and I and some others were crammed into a red leather booth in a bar that had once been a gas station. It was still warm outside but it wouldn’t be much longer. “I think it’s because my grandmother just died,” she said. “I don’t know—I’ve never really thought much about it before now.”
As she spoke, the upper half of my body slumped out and across the table, empty glasses clinking as my elbow nudged them aside. “Tell me what that’s like,” I said, eyes wide, as if imploring her to recount some illicit rendezvous. She laughed and everyone laughed and the waitress came over and we ordered another round.
I had been joking but also not joking. I would like to know what that’s like—to have that very particular sort of anxiety be a sudden thing, to be able to say of death, “I’ve never really thought about it much before.”
For almost as long as I’ve been alive I have known that I am going to die. This awareness came to me when I was five, going on six, and since I was a child then, selfish and self-orbiting, I assumed a certain universality. At the time, and for years after, it seemed to me that the awareness of death—and therefore the fear of death, because I couldn’t fathom that a person could know of it without fearing it—was something that dawned early in every human life. It was not quite so fundamental as breathing or hair growth or digestion but more innate than learning the alphabet or the order of the days of the week, though soon enough it came to seem just as familiar.
That death was not often talked about in any open or direct way did not seem to make it any less real. As a kid, I intuited that there were certain subjects that were not for me to hear of, and later I came to understand that discussions of those same subjects were best tempered with shrugged shoulders and sideways insinuations. Death was among them, like pooping and menstruating and masturbating. Other times the topic seemed not gauche so much as just too foregone to speak of in any useful way—too vast, too apparent, like the very presence of the sky.
And so I was a child and then not so much a child anymore, my mortality all the while privately contemplated in uncountable, unshared moments of hot, glaring clarity, before I began to understand that this was not a standard feature of the human experience. This realization feels like it sprung into my mind that night at the bar in September, a long drunk second after Kate spoke and before I slouched out over the table and everyone laughed, but I know it must have quietly rooted itself there long before; these things tend to sneak up on you, or at least they sneak up on me.
Startled, then, I started looking for something to blame, something to swat away, something to punish for my being caught unaware. If my simple existence was not the trigger for this knowledge, for this fear, then what was? I take what I know about what was then my life and I turn it over and over, running my fingers along the edges, looking for an unexplored crevice that I could pry open to reveal some sacred inner chamber where all the truth must lie. I do this even as I know we are all just chambers within chambers, centerless and inexplicable. I do this as if getting it right might exempt me from death itself, despite how long I’ve known that could never be true.
It should be said that I was a prodigiously spooked child to begin with. Early on I blew past the standard fears of boogeymen and underbed monsters for more advanced preoccupations and elaborate means of avoidance. I had to sit a certain way on the swingset in my yard to avoid seeing the backside of a neighbor’s house, where two windows and a horizontally stored ladder formed a huge, grim face. I made my mother put stickers—butterflies, birthday cakes, smiling suns—over the face of every picture-book character I deemed marginally disturbing. I trained myself not to look too hard at ceiling plaster and wallpaper patterns lest I summon figures out of the whorls, ghastly faces with gaping eyes that receded as quickly as they appeared. But some things were harder to will into nonexistence.
My elementary school was a low-slung, red-brick building stationed across a shoulderless state road from a Baptist church, petite and white columned and also red brick. By the time I came around—kindergarten, 1990—the two institutions had settled into a mutual state of charming shambles, staring out at one another as if willing the rest of the world away. The church was set off to one side of its property, a wide lot otherwise occupied by a swath of soddy green, pocked and pierced by gangly fir trees and stumps and hulkish gray stone slabs. The cemetery wasn’t big, but it was unfenced, unobscured, visible from nearly every vantage point in or around the school where I spent my days. The tombstones were planted in rows all facing westward, toward the chapel, and so from across the street they appeared to me in profile, a static parade of the dead.
Some afternoons, at recess on the pea-gravel corral of the kindergarten playground, I saw one corner of the cemetery grounds crowded with figures in dark clothes huddled under a green tent; later, when the people were gone, there would be a yellow backhoe and a mound of red dirt that grew smaller and smaller. Sometimes a froth of pink and purple silk flowers would be left behind and in the weeks to come would get tumbled over and kicked around by the wind, finally coming to rest in the ditch, the petals and wires carried off by birds for their nests or to choke on.
At five, at six, I knew that the cemetery was full of dead bodies rotting away in boxes under the ground, and I knew that I would be one of those bodies under the ground one day, too. I could imagine myself dead; I could imagine it, and I did, sometimes as the child I was at the time and other times as the adult I would one day somehow become. Sometimes I would force these thoughts upon myself as if to test their power, or my power to resist them. But mostly they just arrived in my head—fully formed, uninvited—for a second or two at a time, or a minute, or more. Sometimes they stayed so long I barely noticed when they finally faded away.
If other kids at school noticed the cemetery, we never talked about it. But what does that mean? I saw it, I felt it, but never mentioned it; so perhaps all of us knew, or half-knew, and just kept it to ourselves. Perhaps some of us knew and were not even afraid. Or maybe we feared what we knew and locked it away, but then it showed itself out the side door. Death does tend to find its way.
Once a girl found a sliver of pink plastic on the ground and told me it was the lips of a man who’d been beheaded on the tree stump over by the merry-go-round. I did not quite believe her, but I began to give wide berth to the stump just in case my proximity to the alleged murder might implicate or endanger me somehow.
Another time I found two of my friends, two tiny blonde girls with bangs snipped straight across their foreheads, kneeling at the far end of the playground, near the chain-link fence that separated us from the ditch that separated us from the road that separated us from the cemetery. They had cleared away the gravel from around a fist-sized rock half-buried in the dirt. They called me closer and told me hell was under the rock. They told me that if I looked under the rock I would see the devil. I thought how small the devil must be to fit under that rock and I tried to pry it up and see for myself but it was stuck in the ground and the two girls just laughed at me and laughed and laughed.
There is a tendency among adults to believe that children do not, or simply cannot, comprehend the reality of death. Perhaps they are unable to remember that they themselves understood death as children, or perhaps they can remember but believe their own personal understanding to have been some kind of anomaly. Or they can remember but they fear or resent what they knew back then—because they still know it, because they can’t unknow it. So they hold the child’s understanding of death at a distance, to keep it from mingling with and compromising or strengthening their own. I’m guilty of this too, somehow.
Either way, it is true that children can, and do, comprehend death; less clear is what they know, and when. Developmental psychologists suggest a spindly wire frame of what is generally understood about death at different ages, but so much depends on experience and maturity and the unaccountable topography of each individual brain. Some begin to grieve secondhand, those infants and toddlers with the vague wherewithal to detect the sadness or distress of their caretakers, leading to the disruption of the few basic habits they’ve had a chance to develop. Preschoolers and kindergarteners exist largely without any concept of time, which makes grasping the permanence of death difficult for them; magical thinking and confusion reign. Older children and young adolescents tend to personify death and believe themselves invincible to it, then slowly edge into the realization of their own mortality and the possibility of some life beyond this one. Denial blooms and bursts at the end there like the sulfurous finale of a fireworks show.
Some psychologists will suggest that teenagers possess “an adult understanding of death”—meaning they have grasped the four components of what is called “the death concept”: universality, irreversibility, nonfunctionality, causality. This seems to suffice as long as you don’t consider too closely what a disaster the “adult” understanding of death so often turns out to be. But others believe the full idea of death can—and should—be comprehended by much younger children, even as young as five or six. “Children who do not yet understand these basic concepts are at a marked disadvantage,” says a 2010 book called The Grieving Student: A Teacher’s Guide. “They cannot begin to accept something they do not yet understand.”
It seems we prefer to wait until absolutely necessary to talk to children about death. The terminally ill child may be briefed on the fact of her own imminent death; the rest are left to ride out the years, inaugurated just after a pet has died, or a grandparent, or a more inexplicable loss—a parent, a sibling, a friend. There are ways to talk about children in all of these situations: avoid euphemisms, speak plainly and honestly, let them know they are loved and safe. The child watches the first death disappear further into the rearview and waits, prepared, for the next one to come along.
But what of those whose small minds death seemed to work its way into like a germ, sparking like a fever, origins unseen? In kindergarten, when I first faced the cemetery and knew what it was and began to contemplate death as a new daily fact of my life, I had been to a funeral once or twice as a babe in arms, but otherwise had said no forever good-bye to any living thing; I had witnessed no fatalities beyond the realm of cartoons and the occasional ode to a street race turned tragic that played on the oldies station my parents kept on in the car. If I had ever overheard a word about death, about what happens to bodies when they are no longer living bodies, about what those gray stone slabs point to under the ground, I want to think that I would remember it, that I could point to it and say, “Yes, this is it, here is where it all began.” But there is nothing I can remember, or there is nothing to remember. Death had no good reason to be there, yet there it was.
My parents loom so hugely here, twin crags I didn’t realize I lived at the foot of until years later when I first tried to walk away; if I ever had a need, they met it, kept me safe in every imaginable way. But how could they be responsible for the endlessly ticking wind-up mania deep inside my small brain? How could they, when I made only flashes of it known, when it was available only in flashes to my own self anyway? So much of what I felt or thought about death back then existed beyond the realm of words, or at least beyond the words I knew; to trace back over my memories of that time is to realize I was living at the mercy of a language I had only just begun to learn. I was carving runes along the path as if I knew my later self would one day double over her tracks, find what she had forgotten she left behind, and only then be able to hazard some rough translation of what I knew and how.
Lacking any better explanation, I suppose it’s as possible as anything else that my thoughts of death were dispatched from the cemetery itself, that they simply drifted over across the street to me like ghosts, sunk through my thin skull and never left.
For a time I thought that if I ignored death it would ignore me. At school, I tried not looking out across at the cemetery; I shielded my eyes when I was driven past it in the mornings and afternoons, turned my face away any time I was made to go outside during the day. But the grounds and the graves were always there on my blurred periphery. Even tucked away inside the school building, sitting in class or walking the halls, I felt a dark, sickly pull, like death had me in its sights, like it was daring me, just daring me, to look it in the eye.
I wasn’t even safe at home, or asleep. That fall I began to dream of death—or perhaps I had always dreamed of death but it was only then that I was able to remember the dreams in any detail when I woke. I was so much a child then that it is almost hard to comprehend. I feel like I never possibly could have been so small, so new. When things happened then, they happened for the first time. They had never happened before.
There was the dream about Miss Hardin, my P.E. teacher, laid out in a coffin in the middle of the street outside my family’s house, dressed in one of the colorblocked windsuits she always wore and clasping a single white flower in her smooth, tanned hands; in the dream, I knew that she had died from the bite of the squirrel, and the squirrel was there too, and chipmunks and raccoons, all holding white flowers of their own, mourning cartoon creatures superimposed over the wavery reality of my dreamstock. When I woke up in the morning I looked out my window and could see just where the coffin had been, though there was nothing there anymore but the oil-stained pavement.
That night or another nearby was the dream about the girl, the frozen image of her developing like a tintype on the inner surface of my skull: her dark hair hanging in ringlets, her ruffled dress, her feet buttoned snug into ankle boots. In the dream I knew one thing about her, one thing only, and what I knew is that she was dead. Not dead in the dream, but perhaps not long after, or just eventually. She was dead, somewhere and somehow, just as I would be, too, one day.
One night I crawled into bed and studied my sheets, white with a delicate pattern of pink and purple flowers, and announced to my mother that the sheets reminded me of heaven, and that heaven reminded me of dying, and that I needed new sheets, and so they were changed.
The goldfish went first, as I had guessed it might. When my family returned home from church that Sunday morning, I saw it from the doorway, across the room, floating on its side in the cloudy bowl on the credenza, its white belly pressed plaintively against the glass. I was not so much repulsed as repelled, the sight of it pushing me from the room and up the stairs, down the hall, bedroom, door closed, feet barely touching the floor. It was something like a sustained levitation, or a merciful hand reaching down to pluck me and bear me away. Carcass removal duty defaulted to my parents. Whether the fish was flushed or buried, I never knew. What I did know, after that day: if I could not ignore death entirely, I could at least be exempt from the whole mess if I just left the room.
Next was Buster, the wooly white beast my mother had adopted in college. In his twilight years, having never quite come around to sharing his existence with my father and sister and me, the dog did little other than nap and bark and harrumph around the living room, claws tapping on hardwoods, cloudy eyes peering out from under a tangle of fur: But I was here first. Sarah was four and I was seven the day our mother brought us home from school, sat us down and told us that Buster had died and that, if we wanted, she would show up where he was buried in the backyard.
Before the offer was fully made I had vacated to my room again, was a wrecked pile upon the sheets that did or did not remind me of heaven. When I realized later that Sarah had gone without me, it annoyed me inexpressibly, the way so many things about my sister annoyed me then—she who was always too much like me or not enough. She had already spent much of her early childhood trailing behind me, picking up everything from my old winter coats to the rhotic lisp that rendered all my r’s as w’s. The matter of the dog had been an early point of divergence; he and I had mostly ignored one another, but her first words were some approximation of his name and while still in diapers she would sit and stack small towers of Milk-bones for him to demolish like a senile, four-legged Godzilla. The day he died, I’m not sure whether I wished I was brave like her or if I wished she was afraid like me.
Years later I learned two things about that afternoon. The first: that morning, her husband at work and her children at school, my mother had taken Buster to the veterinarian, had him pumped full of things that stopped his tired old heart forever, then brought his body home, dug his grave in the backyard, and put him in the ground herself. The second: Sarah’s memories of the day nearly mirror my own, but are off by a few degrees—the same scene filmed from a second angle. She remembers our mother sitting us down, remembers me exiting the room in my spastic grief. And in that moment, she has since told me, she saw two immediate futures for herself: she could do as I had done, which is what she had always done, or she could do what she wanted to do, which was to put her pudgy, snotty hand in our mother’s and follow her outside. When she made her choice, for one of the very first times in her life, it was not mine.
After that day I did not want to go out to the yard for quite some time. And when I did, I minced around the lawn as if I might step on the dog’s grave at any moment and as if the ground would respond like a landmine was buried there and not an incontinent poodle mix. Eventually I came to regret not knowing where he was. Sarah and I would be playing in the yard and I would look at her with her thin blonde ringlets shaking down over her face and think, She knows. I could have asked her, but I didn’t. I could have asked my mother, or my father, but I didn’t. Then we moved the next spring and the grave became someone else’s to avoid.
When the funerals began to happen, or when I became aware that they were happening, they seemed to exist on the same level as my parents’ anniversary dates and office holiday parties—strictly adult operations involving suit jackets and dark dresses and babysitters and them coming home to Sarah and I late and funny-faced. But when my father’s father died two weeks after Christmas the year I turned ten, our parents took us out of school and out of town to the big white farmhouse that was now just my grandmother’s. We were always the youngest there by three decades; this time, someone gave us each a knitted finger puppet—a raccoon, a fox—consolation prizes, it seemed. When the house became too crowded with the mourners who never seemed to stop arriving, we escaped to the low arms of the magnolia tree in the side yard, hanging in the low branches and talking through the animals on our fingers as we watched the cars drive up and down the driveway’s gravel parabola. We watched our other grandparents, our mom’s mother and father, park and unfold themselves from their small blue car, and I thought how unfair it was that my mother still had two but my dad now had just one.
The next morning, Sarah went off with our parents and grandmother and everyone else to the funeral and I was put in the care of the wife of one of my father’s college friends. Memory offers no suggestions as to whether I was given any say in the exile, but I was grateful for it. It had returned—that hot, shimmery panic that blew at my back and tickled the side of my face no matter how carefully I trained my eyes around the cemetery back on the old playground. Something was begging me to look its way, and I had refused. I thought I would always refuse.
Relieved as I was to be excused from the funeral, I could not stop thinking about the funeral. Whatever distractions I may have been plied with that morning have been blotched out by the memories of what I imagined must be happening at the service across town: a long, slow line of black cars snaking through the rutted paths of an overcrowded graveyard; gray tombstones slumped against one another in the soft gray earth; all the mourners in their black coats huddled against the wind and their sorrow; needles of freezing rain cutting the air; umbrellas hoisted above the crowd converging into a single spiny mass, obscuring any sign of a casket being lowered down into the ground.
That afternoon, when I was returned to the house, the downstairs rooms were packed with guests lingering over tables heavy with the casseroles and sandwich platters and cheese trays that had been arriving for days to pad out the grief with fat and starch. The crowd was talking but not about death, not about digging holes or lowering caskets or rotting in a box under the ground forever; they were onto other things, the adult things I did not yet understand, and the old names and places and ways I never would. It seemed like any other holiday at the house, even more buoyant than the dampened Christmas we’d just had with my grandfather there in his bed in the living room and everyone’s voices low and tight. There was some laughter, a lightness. I felt not as if had escaped something, but as if I had missed something, like I’d arrived at the theater just as the curtain fell on a show I had not thought I cared to see before.
I found Sarah among all the tall bodies and we swiped snacks from low tabletops and crawled into a corner of the living room rendered jungleous by an onslaught of sympathy plants sent by far-flung bereaved. In my exile earlier I had thought about her bundled away inside one of the hearses, going on that long sad ride without me; she had seemed so small in my mind, so much smaller than she really was. I had imagined her dressed in a tiny black coat and hat that I knew she did not even have. She was seven, older than I’d been when the cemetery first entered my periphery, was a student at the same red-brick school and played on that same unguarded playground, but she seemed unbothered by death and not because she was unaware. She knew where the dog was buried. She had watched as our grandfather was lowered into the ground that very morning. I tried to sense if there was anything different about her now that she had been to a funeral, now that she had seen all this I could not let myself see, but nothing about her seemed different at all, and this was more surprising than any change I might have detected.
In the corner of the living room, amidst the gangly anthurium and lilies of the valley, she told me how hard the wind had blown through the cemetery that morning. “Everyone’s umbrellas turned inside out,” she said, and I imagined the black domes folding back on themselves, straining against their fragile joints, pulling out into the air, flying away as a flock of crows.
It is disorienting to realize that your life, once presumed to be following the only course available, might have actually gone any number of other ways; that indeed all the lives around you are careening around on different tracks you didn’t even realize existed, though they were never anywhere but right in front of you; that your own life is a track all its own, strange and mappable against the rest.
When I first realized that there were other ways that my life could have come to encompass the awareness of death—“the adult death concept”—I was a little angry, even jealous. Who would I have become if I had been able to delay this understanding, to stave it off somehow? Or who would I have become if I had been able to embrace it without fear? But I have known what I know for so long that imagining living without that knowledge, without that fear, without the always-hovering presence death itself, is imagining my life without its core, its anchor. It flies apart in the air, drifts out on the wind. It becomes nothing.
The knowledge of death seems like something that should be eased into, the mind dilating and constricting like a pupil to keep too much from shining in at once and searing the delicate back wall. Instead it arrives as unpredictably, as cruelly or as easily, as the thing itself. It comes for each of us in our own time—when we are children, when we are grown, when we are anything in between, or beyond. Perhaps we will be given some sense of how or when or why. But probably, like death itself, the knowledge of death will come in fits and starts over the years, a hacking away, or proceed as a slow diminishment, an erosion, perceptible only once whatever was there is gone.
Another question, now: How do I tell a story when I haven’t yet lived the end? When I may have lived the better part of the story already, or when I may not even be one-quarter through? And when, either way, whenever the end does come, it will render untellable everything that came before?
I have decided, for now, to stop the story where it began, if it began anywhere at all.
I was mired in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school when the old red-brick elementary school came down. One evening before the bulldozers crawled in my mom and sister and I made a visit to pay our final respects; after my grandfather died, it was the closest I came to a funeral for many more years. Some sense of abandonment is standard on school grounds at a certain point in midsummer, but that night the place felt profoundly desolate, heavy with a sense of an ending. Everything was so much smaller than I remembered, as if the building itself had shriveled, like a frail old man in a too-big hospital gown. It was sagging and flaking and cracking at its seams. There had been rain earlier in the day and the sky seemed to be considering another go; the light was pale gray, everything green almost leeringly so. The air, pasty with humidity, may have been all that was holding the old thing together.
I had brought my camera—I was entering a phase of feeling unwhole without it—and I circled the building, taking overly-studied shots of the slouched facade, the ivy sneaking up over the brick frame, the classrooms emptied and cavernous beyond the smudged windows. Sarah and I found the side staircase we had run down countless times to meet our mom’s minivan in the carpool line; Mom took the camera from me and had the two of us pose there, leaning against the brick—me taller than my sister by an awkward foot, our braces flashing from behind half-smiles, just like we’d posed at the foot of so many other crumbling monuments before.
Before we left for home I scuffed out to the front edge of the school grounds, stood at the mouth of the gravel-scattered driveway and stared out over the road. The cemetery sat across the way and looked mostly as it always had—but, I supposed, more full than ever. Ten years of new old bodies under the ground. New young bodies, too. Cars whooshed by on the asphalt between us, sending a spray of hot mist into the air. Next to me, stabbed into the grass near the ditch, was a metal pole bearing a reflective directional sign. It had been there for years and I had seen it a hundred times or more—any car or bus or minivan that ever left the school parking lot had idled there in that spot, in full view of the cemetery across the way, before pulling out into traffic. But all those years I had been too busy trying to avoid looking where the sign seemed to point to see where the sign seemed to point. I didn’t see it until I finally saw it. And when I did see it I took a step back, put my camera to my eye and in the viewfinder framed up the ONE WAY sign and all the westward-facing tombstones it pointed straight towards. I squinted into the small window and pressed the shutter and somewhere inside the black box something went click.
Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.