Death Becomes Her

My daughter has become hung up on death, which is a common condition for people raised in Queens. It is not only the home to the Boulevard of Death, but it’s also the borough where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone’s grave (just one more reason why you shouldn’t throw rocks around like that).

When she was still a tiny thing, I would often take her on strolls through a cemetery a block from our house. It was a quiet, shady, peaceful place in a neighborhood short on all those commodities. I’d push her around in her stroller up a steep hill, passing the graves off Civil War veterans, allegedly loving parents (no empirical evidence provided), and entreaties to the Great Hereafter in several dozen languages. At the cemetery’s highest point, you could see Manhattan flicker in the distance, a testament to all that mankind could accomplish, while we were surrounded by a reminder of where we all end up.

It could be this early exposure to headstones and such made her curious about The Grave. It could be she’s just inclined in a morbid direction; she already enjoys “scary” stuff and has a precociously completist fondness for Harry Potter. Or, perhaps she was marked sent scurrying in this direction by a sad scene we both witnessed nearly two years ago.

We were at the Queens Zoo in Flushing Meadows, just me and her, in the petting zoo area. These things have always freaked me out. Even when I was a kid myself, I found the thought of llamas licking my palm deeply disturbing. I try to avoid any place where the ceiling for your experience tops out at “I didn’t get bit!”

My daughter had no such qualms, though, so I took her to the petting zoo. It was a late fall day, the weather still stubbornly warm and a little muggy, though that may have been a product of so many woolen animals radiating heat in our general direction. As she wandered the yard with a handful of feed, looking for hungry sheep, I heard another random kid loudly proclaim “HEY MA, LOOK!” in a blaring bleat that said this kid was chest-thumpingly proud of whatever he just did. I turn to see the voice came from a boy, around 9 or 10 years old, who is holding in his hands a pigeon.

As I’m sure you know, pigeons normally aren’t too easy to catch, which means this pigeon must have been seriously messed up. At first glance, there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with the bird. Its eyes were open and I could see it make slight movements. But the more I looked at the pigeon, the more I could see it had an exhausted, resigned look. Whatever plagued this pigeon couldn’t be fought anymore, which is why it was now being clutched by a siren-loud brat in an Angry Birds t-shirt.

The boy’s mother took notice shortly after I did, and her eyes AWOOGA-ed out of her head like a Tex Avery cartoon. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” she screamed. She began to dart in his general direction, wanting to slap the thing out of his hands, then stopped, obviously thinking Even for my flesh and blood, I ain’t touching that thing. She pleaded with him to Put. That. Thing. Down.

Problem was, by this point, he’d started to attract the curious attention of other kids. They crowded around him in a circle, begging to pet the thing and hold it themselves. The kid scream-asked his mom, “CAN I KEEP IT?” while a growing ring of tiny apostles gravitated toward him. The mom paused and shut her eyes very slowly–the classic parenting move that says, without actually saying anything, Please god, take me now–before once again pleading with him to Put. That. Filthy. Thing. Down. NOW.

My daughter started toward the Pigeon Whisperer, but I physically restrained her. At this time, she was mired in the tail-end of the Terrible Twos (no one tells you The Terrible Twos can last well into the Fours) and did not react well to being told she couldn’t do something she really wanted to do. She demanded to know why she couldn’t get near the pigeon when all those other kids were getting close to it. She hadn’t noticed that these other kids’ moms had begun to notice what was going on, freaked out en masse, and frog-marched their children out of harm’s way.

“You can’t get near the pigeon because it’s really, really sick,” I said, “and I don’t want you to get sick too.”

That was not sufficient. My daughter entered the launch code for weapons-grade whining. “BUT WHYYYYYYYY?”

“Because that pigeon is dying!” I spat out, and instantly regretted it. She was old enough to have a vague idea of the seriousness of what I’d just said, so now she was both curious and terrified. I had a primal instinct to get her away from this scene, sensing horror was just around the corner, and tried to direct her and her handful of pellets to a hungry-looking alpaca a few feet away. She wouldn’t budge.

After a full two minutes of pleading, the Pigeon Whisperer’s mom convinced him to lay the poor thing back on the ground. It sat right where it lay, nestled on the ground, still alive and blinking but immobile, resigned. At that point, other, healthier pigeons who were in the vicinity abandoned their hunt for human leavings so they could gather around the sick one and peck the living shit out of it.

This must have come from some lizard brain Darwinian programing. “KILL THE WEAK ONE SO THAT ITS FAULTY GENES WILL NOT POLLUTE THE HERD.” The parents on hand let out a collective, horrified gasp, but the kids responded with a clueless, savage “Yeah, go!” Because kids are like Roman emperors when it comes to entertainment; the more gruesome the show, the better.

The commotion finally caught the attention of zoo workers, who sent someone over to shepherd the sick one away. This being a zoo, I assumed the deed would be done discreetly and humanely. Instead, the sick pigeon was gathered up by a janitor, who literally brushed the thing with a broom into a dustpan and carried it off. The janitor at least had the decency to not dump it into a garbage can in front of our eyes. The kids let out a disappointed “awww!” and scattered.

My daughter and I dealt with this shared horror the way humanity has for millennia: We turned it into a joke. Weeks after the incident, she said to me out of the blue, “Daddy, remember when we saw the kid pick up the pigeon?” Yes, that was crazy! I said, and we recalled the mom screaming at him to put it down, careful to leave out what happened afterwards. Every time it was remembered thereafter, it was as a funny story. Jokes!

And then, a few months ago, she began asking me this question: “Does everybody die?” The first time she asked this, I paused for a second to ponder the gravity of what she was asking me, while also briefly considering the possibility of lying. Eventually I said, “Yes, they do.” She responded, “Aww….” in a disappointed way, like I’d just told her she couldn’t have another cupcake, a response as appropriate any other.

Eventually, this question was followed up with the even more speculative/terrifying, “What if everybody died? Like in the whole earth?” I tried to assure her that this would not happen, and if it did, not for billions of years, though I realized I couldn’t guarantee anything.

Then one day, as I drove her home from day camp, she asked apropos of nothing and in a very casual tone, “Are you ever gonna die?” This came at the end of a rough day during a rough week, and it took everything in my power not to bring the car to a screeching halt and start sobbing right there. I said, “Yes, but that won’t happen for a long time,” knowing that one stray bullet or drunk driver could wipe out that promise.

What fascinates me about these questions is not so much that she’s asking them, but the glib tone she uses to do so. Some psychologists believe a fear of death is innate within us, that it drives a good deal of our personalities. But my daughter doesn’t seem to have a trace of fear within her when she spits out these queries.

On another recent trip home from camp, we were driving up a small side street, wedged between the same cemetery I used to stroll her through and the imposing, creep-tacular Fresh Pond Crematory. She picked this moment to ask me if she could drive my car some day. “If we still have it when you’re old enough to drive, sure,” I said.

“No, I mean can I have your car,” she said, “you know, when you die.”

I was so stunned by the request, I had to laugh. “If that happens,” I said, “you’re gonna be thinking about a lot more than my car. Trust me.”

My mind raced back to that pigeon, scooped up by some dumb kid, attacked by ex-friends, brushed into a dustpan. At the time, I thought it was horrible because it seemed the worst, least dignified end imaginable for any living thing, even a pigeon. But how much better is it for anybody, really? And if you’ve seen such a sad, inhumane death like that before the age of five, maybe death itself seems like less a terror and more of a joke.

We drove in silence for a few blocks, then she chirped from the backseat. “Daddy, I’m sorry I said you would die.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s not your fault.”