I’m not entirely sure how I came up with this flash fiction piece. I was stuck on ideas and started reading some brief summaries of ancient myths because I was thinking about starting a project where I’d modernize a couple.
Many of them focus on life and death, so I guess that’s how I got the theme. The rest, I ended up in a weird writer’s groove so I can’t really offer much of an explanation. I’m still trying to be funny in my writing so let me know if I’m funny. Hope you enjoy!
My daughter came up to me and asked, “What happens when you die?” I was taken aback by how old my own daughter thought I was, before the shock of her asking such a serious question at only the age of four. I remembered scaring myself over the same issue, crying hysterically in my parents’ bathroom, when I was around that age. I knew I had to tread carefully.
However, I had no idea what the right answer was. Before she was born, I talked about religion with my wife. “I’m a firm believer in kids being kids,” I told her. “When I was younger, and I learned about hell (Catholics, or at least my father, who wasn’t a practicing Catholic anymore, speak very seriously about religion), all it did was strike the fear of God in me. If I made fun of a boy in class, does that mean I’m going to Hell? If I tell my brother I hate him and he dies, will I go Hell?” I knew that route would be too much for a child, that it was always too soon. Plus, religion in 2018 is for Republicans, and we were not letting our female daughter turn into a Trump-supporting, gun-toting, Tomi Lahren-type Republican. That’s where I drew a line.
I also contemplated the more natural route, where our body decomposes, starting with the organs, then the gas buildup where we turn into balloons, then the changing of colors from green to red as the blood decomposes, and finally turning into a big pile of bones and mush that maggots and other strange creatures feast on. But she’d ask, “Do we go to heaven?” and I’d be disappointed in the fact that regardless of which path I chose to go down, religion would play a role. Or she’d have nightmares for the rest of her life and need intense therapy that neither my wife or I could afford–and the lawyer I’d need after my wife filed for a divorce and full custody of my baby. No one’ll take my baby from me.
Perhaps there was a philosophical way of twisting this whole conversation around, where I could confuse her with theories like the odds of life actually being a computer simulation are higher than she’d realize. Or I could tell her about the famous philosophers who believed life was simply what we perceived life to be, and that there might not even be a true life after all is said and done. But there’s that whole, “I think, therefore I am” argument, and I’m a firm believer in that as well. Anyone who believed Nietzsche’s assumptions that there was no universal truth or point to life at all was also likely to drive a lowered, lawn-mower-sounding Honda Civic, didn’t vote to stick it to the two-party system, grew a terrible goatee that couldn’t connect with the mustache, and had a girlfriend who was still in high school but “she’ll be eighteen in six months, bro.” And my baby would not have a twenty-six year old boyfriend who did all of the above.
The more I thought, and the longer I looked at my baby who stared so intently back at me, the more I realized she was going to run to her mother hysterically crying, and I’d be hearing about it later that night. So I told her nothing happened. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said again. “It’s like going to sleep, but you don’t know you’re asleep.” This seemed to ease her mind, and I should have stopped there, but something about her face still seemed confused after she said okay. “It’s like going to sleep, but you never wake up,” I continued. “Ever?” she asked. “Ever.” She wasn’t hysterical, and she didn’t ask about heaven either, which relieved me because I couldn’t get into religion. To be honest, it wasn’t something I knew much about and I’d butcher everything. I’d have to go out and buy a bible or and explain things, which, again, was the last thing we both needed.
But she did go right to her mother and tell her what I had said. She didn’t mention that she asked out of the blue, and that it caught me off guard. There was no way of telling her mother that I stared at her for so long trying to figure out the best way of handling that situation was. Her limited vocabulary wouldn’t find the words to describe the philosophical torment my own mind was putting me through. I never thought about death; I didn’t think I was old. And what inspired her to even ask in the first place? Did she mention that? No. Just because I’m the parent doesn’t mean I’m at fault. If she didn’t ask, she wouldn’t have received such a morbid answer. “It could’ve gone worse,” I told my wife, who was standing in the kitchen doorway with her arms across her chest. “If she starts crying,” she said, “you’re dealing with her.” Again, not as bad as I thought.
So later that night, when it was time for bed, and my wife tried to go through the whole routine of giving our daughter a bath, brushing hair, clipping her fingernails and toenails, finding the right pajamas, reading Goodnight Moon, shutting off the lights, and kissing her goodnight, our daughter said, “I’m afraid to go to sleep.” When my wife asked why, our daughter said, “Dad said dying is like sleeping, but we don’t wake up.” My wife said it wasn’t true. Tears started to trickle down my baby’s eyes. “I don’t want to die, Mommy,” she cried. She was much more hysterical now. She, like most babies, let her fear grow and grow as her mind raced with more and more morbid thoughts.
“You’re not going to die. Death doesn’t work like that.”
“So how does it work?”
Could it really be happening? Was I watching my perfect wife choke under pressure? What world were we living in? She was human! I could have jumped in at any point, but I figured I’d let it all play out. Maybe I could be the one to earn some points by fixing things. “People who die are usually sick or do something dangerous. Sometimes they die of old age, but you’re just a baby, Sweetie. You’re not going to die in your sleep. You’re too young.” Shit, she was good. That’s why I let her stick it out. I knew she’d find a way to get it back to normal. “But people can die in their sleep?” our daughter asked. “Sometimes,” said my wife, whose face dropped as she turned to see me smiling in the hallway.
If you’re interested in submitting your own flash fiction piece, please see my submission guidelines for more details. I know it’s National Poetry Month, but I’d love to start getting more prose submissions from you all.