Being and Nothingness by the Long Island Expressway

When I walk my daughter to school in the morning, we take a shortcut up a service road by the L.I.E. It is noisy, and each exhaust-choked breath I take makes me a little nervous for my future health, but it’s the quickest route we can take, and I’ll be damned if I let carcinogens slow my commute.

One morning, I noticed a fence surrounding a parking lot along the way that had a sign hanging from it. The sign featured a stick man getting squished by a closing gate, basically warning you DON’T BE THIS GUY.

It amused me, because I am ill. And because I like to spread my illness among the world, I pointed it out to my daughter, who proceeded to laugh. “He’s getting crunched!” she howled, thus proving Mel Brooks’ great line about what constitutes comedy: “Tragedy is when I prick my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.”

My daughter is just learning to read and is very enthusiastic about deciphering the world of words and letters. She wanted to know what the words on this sign said, so I read them to her.

Of all the words on this sign that were unfamiliar to her, she wanted to know what “death” meant. This is at 7:30 in the morning, by the way.

When you die, you’re dead, I said. That’s death.

She nodded. She has a vague idea of what this means, as much as any five year old does, I suppose. I’ve had to inform her that many of the people I talk about–my grandparents, my father, the aunt we named her after–are dead. She’s been to more than a couple of funerals in her young life, a lot more than I had attended at that age, although in her world I think a funeral is just another occasion where she gets to see her family, except we’re all wearing suits.

She likes to tell me stories that I’ve told her about myself, as if she’s informing me of what happened in my own life. So every now and then she’ll tell me that some family member of mine is dead, and say it in this weird tone that’s half consoling and half instructive.

She has also told me someone I love is dead the way you’d say it if you were playing army or spaceman with your friends, almost taunting. “Pew! Pew! C’mon, you’re dead, I shot you like 20 times!” On these occasions, I’ve had to tell her, “It’s not funny when someone’s dead and you shouldn’t joke around about it.” She’s seemed to understand this as much as any kindergartener could.

“So that gate could make you dead?” she asked.

Yes, I responded. If you didn’t pay attention, it could crush you and hurt you really bad. She made a crunching sound, we laughed, and moved on.

Every day after that, I would make sure to point out the gate sign so we could laugh about it on our commute. Sometimes she’d say “crunch!” or mimic the stick figure saying “agh!” Before long, she began to say “death!,” in this mocking, sinister tone. It always cracked me up, hearing her little voice say such a, well, deadly word with such carefree abandon.

Earlier this week, we passed by the sign, I pointed it out, and she said “death!” I laughed, and then she got very serious all of a sudden.

“Why did you laugh?” she asked.

Because what you said was funny, I said.

She scolded me. “Death isn’t funny, Daddy.” She’d taken my scoldings to heart, all of a sudden.

You’re right, I said. Death isn’t funny. It’s the unfunniest thing there is, pretty much.

“So why did you laugh?” she asked.

The way you said “death” was funny, I said. Sometimes if you say things that are unfunny and scary in just the right way, you can laugh about them and not be so scared anymore.

“Oh,” she said, and added a crunch. We laughed and moved on.