You Have a Rendezvous with Death
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
You will first meet Death in Sunday school, making glittery replicas of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Death is a taxi that drives you straight to heaven, they’ll tell you. It is nothing to fear, nothing to worry about.
You will spend these younger years in your disgustingly pink room, reading books and playing pretend. It will not occur to you that other children are allowed to go outside. Instead, you’ll be in that room wearing your best bathrobe while brandishing your green plastic bubble sword. You’ll put on the only CDs you own, a J.Lo single and the soundtrack of the Peter Pan movie, and practice sword moves. Deftly you’ll move across your purple carpet (which by magic will transform into the swaying mast of the Jolly Roger), blocking Captain Hook’s imaginary blows. You’ll defeat him every time, of course. He will tumble to his death in the choppy waters outside Mermaid Lagoon as you bow to the cheers of the Lost Boys. When your mother tells you to stop fooling with the sword or to stop sitting in your laundry basket (“It’s not a spaceship”) or to get dressed for whatever useless political function your father will drag you to next, you’ll obey. Complain, maybe, but not question. You will comfortably sit with the fact that only villains die, that your life is run by others, and that is the natural order of things.
As time goes on, you and Death will see each other only in passing – but the funny thing about life is that the longer you stay alive, the more you see it taken away. As you grow older, characters in the books you read begin to die. Not just villains but good people too, people who did not deserve the fates assigned them. Students at your school will hang themselves because the pain of life is too great; school shootings will come into vogue; every day on the news the body count will rise and you will wonder if the Earth is big enough to hold all the corpses. Death no longer smiles at you from the pages of your children’s Bible, but looms above you, waiting.
The first person he will steal from you is your grandfather.
Gustavo was your mother’s father. That side of your family fled to Florida from Cuba when Castro led the revolution in ‘53, and like any good Hispanic family is riddled with feuds and drama. By all accounts, Gustavo was a royal asshole – a liar and a cheater and a misogynistic pig. Your grandmother divorced him long ago. Later she got Alzheimer’s and could not remember anyone, including him. You will see him rarely, but when he passes away during your 10th grade year you will still be forced to go to the funeral – your first.
This is what you’ll learn.
Funerals begin in a funeral-home room – a dark green wallpapered affair at the lowest temperature a Floridian can tolerate. In there, the family mingles before the body is buried. When you arrive late, even by Cuban standards, you will find the relatives you cannot stand or do not know groveling at the foot of the coffin, wailing while clutching rosaries, and you will not know how to speak to them. Instead, you’ll hide in a corner and stare at the first dead body you have ever seen. Around you, people will clump into groups like bacterial colonies, talking about children or their business expansions but never about the person lying before them. Whoever embalmed the body will make him almost unrecognizable. For years he had a small open wound on his forehead, like someone had hole-punched his skin. That defining mark will be gone. In life he had been dark, his fat rolls had a life of their own. In death he will be pale and his rolls will drape like carved marble curtains.
Everyone will get quiet when the Padre enters, tiny inside his black robes and purple drapings. He will speak in Spanish from a prayer book older than he is and you will not understand a word of it because you refused to learn the language of your family. The Padre will hold a bottle of holy water in his hand and spray the coffin (now closed) with it in between prayers.
When this is over, your family will stop talking long enough to drive after the hearse to the cemetery next door. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in the state, Woodlawn, and almost every member of your Cuban family who died in America is buried there. Fields and fields of the dead crowd in, overlooked by a weather-worn cathedral in the center of the grounds. It’s so crowded that even the road’s medians have graves in them. Statues of Jesus and angels litter the lawn like an unorganized holy host as you drive to the place where your grandfather will be buried until, in few billion years, the sun scorches the earth into space debris.
Around the grave your family will huddle. The hole will frighten you, but you will hold in the fear and look blankly down the six feet of earthy darkness. The sun will burn through your itchy cardigan. The brightness, like the service, will be nearly unbearable. The Padre will appear yet again, looking as though he could not give less of a shit. The grass will wilt underfoot and you will wilt with it as he circles the coffin, droning in Spanish, flicking holy water at it like one flicks away flies. The honeysuckle smell of the flowers will sicken you. You’ll be desperate for the Padre to trip or mess up – something to jar the constant crying and the awful tension. But that won’t happen. Gustavo will be lowered into the grave in his shiny brown coffin and everyone will walk away from him forever.
Repeat this process as necessary when your grandmother dies.
After, in your bedroom, you will curl up and cry. For hours you will shake from a fear that has been growing inside you since the moment you saw the dead body. Now Death is in perspective; now you see His face. You’ll clutch your carpet, quaking so hard it’s as if the world is falling apart. You came so close to Death and never until now did you understand who He is. Death is an end, a finale. Once He collects your debt, you’re finished. There are no do-overs.
That day the thought of dying will be seared into your head. You’ll stay up late for weeks on the internet reading about Near Death Experiences. You will find endless possibilities. Some go to heaven. Some go to hell. Others see purgatory, or a spirit world with genderless beings in strange cities. Sometimes the NDE is tied to religious belief, but just as often it isn’t. Studies will attribute this to an electrical surge in the brain as a person dies, but this will be controversial since many who have already been pronounced dead have experienced NDEs afterward.
You will read the Bible. On every tissue-thin page you’ll write your thoughts, highlight was makes sense, highlight what doesn’t. Passage after passage, the answers you seek will elude you. For a long time you’ll grasp at verses like straws and build the raft of your religion on them. In the end, you’ll only be left with shreds of Christianity, only believing in the words that came out of Jesus’s mouth. Other Christians will label you as the “bad one”, the one who isn’t 100% committed. The kind of Christian the world needs to be rid of. Give it time. Eventually you’ll stop caring. You will hope for heaven, but know that in the vastness of the universe everything is, quite literally, possible.
And all of this will be the fuel for the fire that awakens within you. Somewhere deep inside a fear will rise, an intense phobia of Death. Never again will “What comes next” be casual existential banter for you. You’ll fear the arrival of your expiration date, and this will change you.
You will never be able to sit still. Never nap. Never laze. You’ll be filled with endless energy, a frightening stamina. To do nothing would be a waste of the time allotted you. You will feel guilty for being naïve for so many years. Why did you ever say “No, I’ll do this later”? You had no guarantee of there being a later. So much of your life was spent allowing yourself to be bullied, shamed, because you were waiting to be rescued by some nameless God or lover that would magically love you for who you were. No one was coming to do that. You had yourself, your life, but you had taken a backseat to let others drive it.
With time, it will all be clear. Everyone is human. Everyone takes a shit. The president, priests, rabbis, generals, singers, writers. Every one of them was born, every one of them will die. They aren’t infallible – no one is. Death will make clear to you the false pretenses we cast over ourselves. The formality society builds around conventions is a delusion, a show we’ve bought into because we were born with it already playing. The power is within our hands to recognize it and not be ruled by it.
What will you do with this revelation?
Shorten your name. You’ve hated it for years, so why not chop off four letters and turn it into something you love? Grow into it like it’s a new skin.
Start knitting, painting, singing. Play every instrument you can get your hands on. Get mostly attached to the ukulele and the piano. Run. Read as many books as you can. Make toys. Do everything. Fall in love, madly in love, and do it smartly this time.
None of these will stop Death. But it will make your time on Earth happy.
Even after doing all these things, you’ll still be confused. Understandable. For years after you will feel a mix of panic and peace about Death. To have no senses, to be completely unknown, either wiped from existence or a part of an after-life – the thought will keep you up at night. But to know that we’ll become a part of the Earth, of the stars where we came from, that our mistakes and misgivings are nothing in the face of the endless cosmic cycle – well, there’s some comfort in that too. You have a rendezvous with Death, and one day you’ll be okay with that.
Vero Stewart is a Creative Writing major and Anthropology minor at the University of Central Florida. By day she writes, by night she makes toys, and in between you can find her in small corners reading.