The first time I thought seriously about death I was four years old. It was at the Planetarium, at the Museum of Natural History on 81st Street in Manhattan, which was—and still is—one of my favorite places. As a kid, I just got the biggest kick out of everything about it: the taxidermied animals in their hand-painted tableaus, reminiscent of snowglobes at rest; the long, ornate staircase railings with lions' heads for ends that just begged to be slid down when you parent wasn’t looking; the cultural exhibits in which carefully crafted dummies representing Eskimos and Native Americans crouched over fires and modeled the latest 17th century fashions, breasts and testes akimbo. My favorite exhibit, though, was the Hall of North American Mammals, because that was where my beloved Musk Ox lived. I cannot explain why the Musk Ox earned my deepest affection. They are large, hairy, horned creatures that look out from their bleak, wintry scene with a mix of apathy and misery. If they had a voice, I imagine it would sound just like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh: Oh, why don't you just keep walking? Nothing to see here. If you look closely you can see little insects burrowing in the oxes' matted fur. They are not cuddly or sanitary, and yet for years I treated them like they my own homely, dead-alive pets. I don’t think I internalized that they were, in fact, lifeless skins affixed to plaster casts, but in retrospect I wonder if my obsession with the Musk Ox wasn’t kind of a red flag.
I can’t remember what we saw at the Planetarium, but depression struck halfway through the show, and mostly because I wasn’t paying attention. I was staring up at the vast black “sky” littered with stars when I started to think about how the stars must be feeling. (This was right around the time that I stopped eating Cheerios because I imagined them screaming in anticipation of death each time I raised my spoon). It must be lonely being a star, I decided. Lonely and boring. Once a teacher in pre-school had told me that she could see her grandmother in the stars, which worried me. Did being dead mean that you were condemned to float in a sea of infinite blackness all day, the planets revolving around you while you had nothing to do but think about how bored you were and miss Earth and watching TV and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese? I exited the Planetarium show and grimly informed my mother that it had reminded me of death. Red flag number two.
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Growing up, my parents were lovers of life who talked and laughed loudly, ate and drank with abandon, and kissed in public. But every time a vacation rolled around they turned into angels of death.
“We’ll be gone for a week,” my mom would say, zipping up her suitcase, “And we’ll be passengers on two long international flights over vast expanses of water, probably with unlicensed pilots. So, God forbid, if the plane should go down, we’ve left letters and detailed instructions for both of you.” We received this same speech like clockwork every time one or both parents traveled anywhere that wasn’t visible from our house.
“There’s a blank check in an envelope in my sock drawer,” my dad would whisper to us before whisking my mother to Norway for vacation. “Along with the deed for the house and my ATM PIN number.” Blank check! He’d specified that it was to be used for the cost of the seemingly imminent funerals, but we didn’t care. As soon as the town car pulled away, we scampered upstairs....
To be continued...