If life is a precious gift that is over when it is over, how are we to stomach a death that comes too soon?
Growing up on a farm, I was deeply aware of life and death. The watermelon seeds we planted six inches apart in furrows grew into seedlings, then sprawled into a mass of vines sprinkled with fuzzy, oblong fruit that grew into striped balls bigger than my head. After we harvested out the watermelon to sell at the farmer’s market, the vines browned and shriveled and were tilled into the ground. I watched crop after crop—big, bursting heads of lettuce, emerald spinach, elephant-eared summer squash plants, rows and rows of broccoli—as their hollowed-out remains were flung into the air by the blades of the tiller. The cut-up pieces rotted and slimed, were subsumed back into the black dirt. I thought, too, as I ate green beans straight off the plant, or as a Sun Gold cherry tomato dissolved into the back of my throat, that something just seconds ago alive was now at the pit of my stomach, devoured.
On my eleventh birthday, my father gave me a journal. It was my “golden” birthday, since I was born on the eleventh of September, and though the journal was Hello Kitty-themed and filled with pale pink lines, I felt as if my father had given me a lifeline to adulthood.
What happens when I die?
We have such a strong sense of self, such a strong sense of our own existence, that it is nearly impossible to believe that part of us will end, that part of us could simply be extinguished when we die. Nobody wants to believe that. Everybody wants to live forever.
But here is what I have come to believe. In short, I believe that when it is over, it is over. I think that when I die I will be gone. There will no longer be a Henry except in the memories of the living and in the bodies of the organisms that feed on my body.
I believe that death is followed by nothingness. What is frightening about nothingness? Nothing is nothing. If you aren’t there to experience it, you can’t be afraid. There is no room for pain or suffering or hunger or thirst or despair or sadness in nothing. People imagine nothingness as darkness, but nothing is not black; it is not darkness. Neither is it light. It is nothing. Nothing cannot be experienced because there is nobody there to experience it. It has neither taste, nor smell, nor feel, nor sound, nor sight. No matter what you can think of, nothing is not that.
I think that once you accept death as inevitable and accept that, when you die, you no longer exist in any way, shape, or form, life becomes much more precious and beautiful. You had better enjoy the warmth of the sun on a cold, winter day. You’d better revel in the beauty of a snowfall. So my advice is to live life—because eventually it will come to an end. If you truly live while you are alive, then you can die in peace.
And I think that when that day comes, you—like me—will be able to say, “So be it. I have lived my life the way I wanted. While alive, I lived. Now I can die in peace and without fear or regret. Thank you, world, for hosting my existence.”
And your loved ones will take your body and lay it in the ground and perhaps plant a cherry tree on your grave, which will flower each spring. And seeing the blossoms, people will say, “Ah, Zoe Brockman lies under that tree. They say in youth she was as beautiful as the blue sky. She lived well and died well.”
And perhaps your grandchildren will pick the cherries in July that you, in your death, helped make so sweet.
Goosebumps shot up all over my arms as I read this for the first time, alone, in my room. The image of the cherry tree made joy bubble in my chest, but it couldn’t wash away my gnawing dread. My father explained the state of nothingness as something that I should not be afraid of, but trying to imagine a future that had no color, shape, or feel made my stomach churn. If it was truly over when it was over—if my spirit could not keep floating on without my body—then each moment, no sooner present than past, could not be wasted. The ticking of the Mickey Mouse clock on my wall echoed in my ears. I did not want to become nothing. Not yet.
How did that happen?
Was she still alive?
The hen was young and healthy, but she did not live until she was of ripe age. At least when foxes and owls mauled and ate the chickens, the cycle of life was fulfilled, and the gift of the hen’s life was transferred to the predator. But this hen was killed for no reason at all, by a board that had been improperly placed. She had been killed by my mistake. Death came swiftly and left no answers.
And so it might come for me, too, even when I was young and healthy and strong. It might come for my father, or for my brother. Then those of us who were left would have to reckon with the knowledge that they were forever gone, into the nothingness.
When dawn broke, the sunlight that streamed in from the window seemed almost impossible. The windstorm had died down, and the electricity was back on. I had survived; or rather, there had been nothing wrong with my body in the first place. It had all been in my head.
Aozora Brockman was raised on an organic vegetable farm in Central Illinois, and is the author of two chapbooks, The Happiness of Dirt and Memory of a Girl. A poet, essayist, and aspiring translator of Japanese literature, she is writing a memoir with her father on farming, climate change, and navigating life's cusps. aozorabrockman.wordpress.com