It wasn't some kind of kindergarten
enlightenment. I didn't even understand death completely at the time. All I knew was that, when you died, people put pictures of you on the wall, and you get a rock with your name on it in the cemetery
. You went somewhere, and it was probably a sad place because people were so sad that you weren't here. But as for the bolder, classic definition of death, I was pretty much in the dark.
My belief in death was a straight up comparison between my older sister, Diane, and myself. She died just a few weeks before her sixth birthday. I was five, and soon I was going to die. I looked at it as an inevitability.
She passed on a few years before I was born, so she was more of an abstraction than anything with emotional attachment. My parents were far from talking about their emotions, so the bits and pieces of information that I did have came from the sparse telling of the legend. My older brother had brought home the chicken pox from school, which she then contracted. She fell into a coma, and died two days after christmas. This explanation seemed to satisfy me at the time, and it was certainly apparent that it wasn't a topic to bring up around the dinner table.
So, I waited instead. I must have thought that the explanation would become apparent, as I was five and I certainly wasn't going to make it to my sixth birthday.
The single tangible memory that I have of that year forever burned into my mind like an atomic flash. My parents were friends with the young couple that lived across the street. I would go over and play in their yard in the summer, usually getting ice cream or other such treats from them. She was a photographer, and my mother thought it would be great to have her take pictures of my younger brother and I.
They turned out about as well as pictures of small children can. My mother went out and bought frames for them, and put them on the wall in a slight descending line from floor to ceiling. There I was, right next to Diane.
The first time I saw us all up on the wall, the logic sprung up. This was the picture that they would keep up there after I died. The picture of Diane, and the picture of me, forever hanging on the wall together. There wasn't any kind of emotion backing it up, it all seemed matter-of-fact to me.
When I turned six, I was a little bit confused. I didn't understand why they had gone through all the trouble of taking a picture of me if I was going to make it after all. I was upset, because I thought that I had somehow let my parents down. I had done something terrible to still be able to stand there, looking at my picture.
Over the years, I learned exactly what had happened. Diane did indeed have the chicken pox, but it was a rather mild case. My mother had given her aspirin to knock back the fever, and didn't think anything of it. This was back in the early 70's, well before the terrible consequences of giving a child aspirin were well known. She came down with Reye's Syndrome, slowly slipped into a coma, and faded away as her liver took more than it could handle.
Every time that I go back to my parents’ house, I look at those pictures. They're hanging in a different house, but it still has the same powerful emotion backing it up. Both pictures have faded with age. I think it's just as well that they have.