Death as Concept, Death as Survival, Death as Distant Reality.
The first time I became aware of the concept of death was from the tag on a hair dryer. “Warn children about the danger of death from electrocution,” it read, under a cute rendering of a bathtub with lightning bolts all around it.
As long-haired five, six and seven-year-olds, my sisters and I were already familiar with the hairdryer, but the discovery of the strange tag affixed to its chord filled us with wonder. We huddled around the thing — certain it was a secret message — and postulated in hushed voices over its meaning. Having recently mastered the art of reading, we deciphered the words phonetically, but their significance left us perplexed.
Finally we gave up and brought the hairdryer with its mysterious tag to our dad, asking him to crack the code. He responded with a crash course on electricity and water and the dire importance of keeping the two separate, because otherwise you could die.
But I was not satisfied. “What is to die?” I asked.
“It means the end of your life,” he said, but he may as well have been speaking another language. I pressed further because the concept of a life simply ending — being no more — had never occurred to me and was utterly inconceivable.
“You’re just gone?” I asked, horrified.
He answered yes, “gone from the earth” and delved into the topic of heaven, but it was life — this life — I was worried about. It disturbed me deeply to consider that simply using a common household item the wrong way could result in such a harsh and irrevocable finality. I asked a good many more times, each time expecting to hear some alternative clause. But once I realized that, I could press and press but the answer would never change, I walked away shell-shocked and sat by myself for a very long time.
It was at that moment I think that the innocence of childhood began to disappear — just like a perfectly good existence, apparently.
A few years after I’d been enlightened to the concept of death, I stormed into my mom’s room, demanding an explanation for the picture in my hand.
The nature book I’d been flipping through was open to a full page photograph of a large bird of prey carrying a smaller bird in its talons.
“What is happening here?” I asked, utterly confused.
My mom leaned over, read the caption and explained, “The big bird is catching the other bird for food.”
My stomach lurched, sickened. Surely that couldn’t be the truth.
“Birds don’t eat other birds” I’d cried incredulously. It was more of a plea than a statement.
But she nodded her head and when she answered her tone seemed far too casual for the horror of her response, “Yes, sometimes birds eat other kinds of birds.”
I remember crying then, rejecting the notion with all my soul. I had just learned another fact of life. But I was shattered, wondering if birds ate birds and it was no big deal, what else in this ever-darkening world could be true?
A few days ago, I saw that picture of the five-year-old boy — at least that’s how old the people who pulled him out of the rubble of his hometown of Aleppo, Syria guessed him to be. His baby cheeks are the color of ash beneath coagulating blood.
His ruined face is all over the internet, one brown eye drooping into a flattened cheek, the other wide and staring like a great omnipotent finger pointing straight at the heart of the human race.
How did we let this happen? How are we okay living in a world where this happens every day to thousands of little girls and boys like this one?
I read the comments below the photograph: people horrified, outraged.
I have lived in countries still staring vacantly from the ravages of recent war. I’ve brought humanitarian aid to towns pockmarked with freshly covered mass graves. I am heartbroken but not surprised by the picture of the small boy with dirt and blood for a face.
Somehow I don’t believe he would be surprised by the concept of a bird eating another bird.