Sophia and I are driving along the turnpike. I’m listening to podcasts of NPR in one ear, trying to ignore Horton the Elephant warbling about his ill-fated Who’s with the other, when Sophie suddenly asks, “Mommy? What happens after people die?”
The question seems to come out of nowhere. I put the ear bud out of my ear, turn off Suessical, and look at her in the rearview mirror.
“What do you think happens after people die?” I ask her. I’m not stalling for time, I really want to know what she thinks.
“Well…we scoop out their blood.” She ventures.
“What? Why would we do that?”
“To sell it!” I shoot her a confused look.
She gets impatient with me, “Like what you said, with the president.”
Oh. Right. Just moments ago I was listening to a story about a vial of Ronald Regan’s blood. Apparently it was taken from a lab that tested his blood for lead after an assassination attempt in 1981. The blood was to be auctioned off, but, responding to pressure from Reagan’s family and surgeon, the blood thief decided to withdraw it from the auction and donate the desiccated residue to the Ronald Reagan foundation.
“Ew,” I silently thought. My face twisted into an expression of disgust. Sophie had called from the back seat, “What, Mommy, what?”
“It’s gross.” I told her.
“Tell me!” the lover of all things gross replied. And, though I know that I really shouldn’t have, I gave her a modified version of the story.
“Ew.” She agreed. “Gross.”
Now, I have to set the story straight.
“Soph, what happened with Reagan is very…unusual. Most people do not get their blood scooped out and sold at auction.” She watches me, expectantly, sucking her thumb. “Any other thought about what happens after we die?”
She removes her thumb from her mouth. “We get broken.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your body starts to fall apart.” I am momentarily stunned by her completely unromantic, somewhat scientific conception of death.
“That’s true.” I affirm. “It does.” I probe her thinking a little deeper, “Do you think we can think anymore after we die?”
“Do you think we can feel anymore after we die?”
“Well…lots of people have different ideas about what happens when you die. But many think exactly what you think—that we simply cease to exist.”
Sophie, fortunately, has had very little experience with death. A dead mouse we found in a field when we were picking raspberries. Friends’ grandparents. My father’s birds, which, horribly, died of starvation because of a miscommunication between my parents. Though we never said how they died, she tells everyone they flew away.
I wonder which of these experiences gave her this idea. What really goes on inside that head of hers.
“Will I die one day?” Sophie asks me.
“Yes, you will. Eventually, everyone does die.”
“Will Snakey-Pie die?” She means her beloved 6-foot stuffed snake.
“Well, the thing about Snakey-Pie is that he’s not alive; he can’t die if he’s not alive. We could die and Snakey would still be around.”
Sophie bursts out crying. “But I want to feel him!” (Sophie “softs” on Snakey, rubbing his fluorescent orange fur while she sucks her thumb.)
“Well, we just talked about the fact that you wouldn’t be able to feel anymore, so you wouldn’t be able to feel Snakey if you were dead.” I mean this to be reassuring, but the logic of it escapes her.
She cries harder.
“It’s a very sad thought,” I admit.
“I will close my eyes, suck my thumb and soft on Snakey when I’m dead.” Sophie decides, confidently rewriting her conceptualization of death—from annihilation to an eternity of comfort.
I watch the calm return to her face. I feel no need to disabuse her of this notion.
Our conversation took us to the very edge of darkness, and after we felt the cold wash over our toes, we ran back for shore, squealing with the thrill of danger. Relieved to, once again, be safe and feel the warmth of the sun.