Dan has asked a very
tough interesting and challenging question this week:
At the moment of death, when you realize that there’s no way out, you worry about those being left behind — at least, we think we will. But this isn’t about who we would worry about. Instead, it’s about those who have already died. If you could go back and do a five minute “exit interview” with them, you could tell them the good (or bad) news about what happened in the years that followed. Which five people would you do this for? What would you be sure to tell them in those few minutes?
Well, the thing is, I don’t know that many people who have died. So my choices are pretty limited. They’re limited even further if one assumes, like in the story I’m writing, that language barriers persist in the afterlife: my maternal grandparents were exclusively monolingual francophones, and my French isn’t that good. But for the purposes of this exercise I’ll assume that there is a universal language of the dead with which all dead beings can communicate.
The other assumption is that I die tomorrow. I mean, I can’t bring people up to speed on my life assuming I die at age 60, because I dont know what’s going to happen to me for the next 30 years, and don’t want even to try to guess. So while I am in actuality doing my best to make it to age 75, I’m writing this story as if I kicked the bucket today, tomorrow, next week at the latest.
So I’m buzzing along the street on my bicycle, not an unreasonable speed or in any unreasonable way. But there is a bullet taxi driver who is burning his way down side streets towards the very corner that I am slowly, carefully approaching. When I pull out into the mouth of the sidestreet, he slams into me and after a brief experience of flight, I crash into another car, bounce down to the pavement, and another speeding idiot hits me.
I don’t last more than a few seconds after that. Funny how fragile we human beings are.
But the next thing I know, I’m sitting in a kind of waiting room, a very standard one except there’s nobody at the desk. The magazines are in all languages, but there’s not much text, only pictures of fashion. As I look at one fashion, my clothes become that fashion. They change as I look to another.
And suddenly, ping!, there’s a hovering surface in front of me. It’s like a checklist, I suppose, though the list is very short. It reads as follows:
Loved ones with whom you may choose to conduct your exit interview. (Maximum of five, no exceptions.)
I look the list over, and I see the following people listed.
- Lucienne Pineault (née Lussier) (maternal grandmother)
- Albert Pineault (maternal grandfather; never met)
- Gordon Sellar Sr. (paternal grandfather)
- Smellie Sellar (paternal grandmother; never met)
Below it is one more option:
- Toto, first family dog. (Canine consciousness, limited to meeting but no interview.)
Those look like they’re my full list of options, and since there’s a maximum of five, I just go with that. Using the tip of my finger, I tick off all of the names, and the interface disappears. I’m left alone so I dig through the magazines till I find some old copies of the pulp magazines H.P. Lovecraft used t publish in. As I read, my clothes return to normal, which in this case means I’m wearing the jacket I bought in Dharamsala and jeans.
A few minutes later, I look up and see a group of figures materializing in the room. They seem mostly like smoke for a few seconds, but solidify soon enough. Two of them I recognize immediatelythe two grandparents I met while they were living. Two of them I know vaguely from pictures, but don’t feel at all familiar with.
“Who are you, young man?” the unrecognizable manmy mother’s fatherasks me. I hear none of the slur my mother describes as having entered his speech after years of boxing.
“I’m you’re grandson, via Ghislaine.”
“Ah!” the man says.
“I told you about her family, marrying that English man, remember?”, my maternal grandmother taps him on the shoulder.
“Are you Gordon’s child, then?” the unrecognized womanmy father’s motherasks me.
“Yes, his first child.”
“What happened?” my paternal grandfather asks. I remember him less vividly that my mother’s mother. Mostly, I remember sitting on his lap and being regaled with stories about Africa, being given his pipe to smoke, and the like.
“I was cycling down the road, in Korea, and some crazy sonofabitch taxi driver hit me and killed me.”
“Ah!” my mom’s father says. “That’s what happened to me, too. Well, sort of. But not in Korea.”
“I know, I say, and smile.”
“Look, time’s short here. What do you want to tell us about your life. What happened? What was important? What was crucial? What do you wish never had happened? What are you so pround of that you can’t forget to mention it here?” This is my paternal grandpa, the accountant, still carefully accounting for time, which is good, because five minutes is a very short span.
“Well, you know, I guess I didn’t really achieve most of what I hoped to, in life. I mean, I’m young. I’m thirty-one. Er, thirty.”
“Thirty-one? Thirty?” my maternal grandmother narrows her eyes, puzzled.
“You know, they count age differently in Asia.”
“Anyway, I was working on a lot of writing, poetry and stories and a couple of novels kicking around in my head; I played a lot of music.”
“What kind of music?”
“I played the saxophone.”
“Ah!” they all say, surprised. “Jazz?”
“Yeah, that was what I liked to play.”
“Great!” both my grandfathers declare at once. “Did the girls like that?”
“Not really. The jazz era was too long ago. Well, some girls like it. A little.”
“Ah, it’s alright. I didn’t really do so very well with girls most of my life anyway. I mean, I’m not complaininganymorebut music wasn’t anywhere near as big an attractor of women as I thought it might be.”
“Did you marry?” my paternal grandmother asks.
“Oh, I heard you had,” comments my maternal grandmother, as my paternal grandfather says, “Oh, now, leave the boy alone…”
“Well, I did, for a while. But that didn’t work out. Neither did the relationships I had afterward, until… well, until Lime, who’s wonderful. Damn. And now I’m dead. I should have never ridden my bike in Korea. Damn, damn…”
“Now, now. There’s nothing you can do to keep death off you. you might have had a little more time if you’d taken a taxi, or maybe you’ve have died sooner.”
“True enough,” I nod.
“So what was your job?” asks my paternal grandpa, ever the pragmatic Scotsman.
“Well, I had aspirations of publishing my writing, but really I was just and English teacher. I finished University and got a Master’s degree while I was at it, and then went to teach English in Asia. In Korea,” I add.
“Do they still have that war going on there?” my maternal grandmother asks.
“No, that finished along time ago, but the North is still pretty horrible and war could break out again. Not sure what America’s doing there, but I’m not so worried about it. Well, I am, but I don’t think about it much.”
“You don’t need to worry. No more war, now. You’re dead.”
“Yeah. Hey, is there an afterlife?”
“Uh uh. No questions for us. You know, we’re not here for that. We’re interviewing you, you know.”
“Alright. Well, what else. How did you like school?”
“Well, I liked it a lot, I guess, once I got my image together. When I was younger, I enjoyed the study part, but the social part of it was hard because I didn’t know how to dress or get along with other kids. When I got a handle on that, and developed my musical ability some, I managed to get along a lot better, get a circle of friends.”
“Was going to Korea a good thing?”
“Yeah, I think so. Before I went, I was dealing with a lot of stuff, and moving abroad was like a new beginning for me. You know the expression, ‘I got my shit together’? I set my life in order after that move. I met some of the best people I know, had some of the most important experiences in my adult life, and found myself knowing joy, freedom, and inspiration again.”
“What kind of things did you write?”
“Uh… weird fiction, I guess. And poems. Stories about ghosts and science fiction stories. Technology’s getting more important in our world these days…”
“… it was important in our days too…” my paternal grandfather mutters.
“I know, but I mean it’s directly impacting everyone’s lives now. And I was trying to ask questions about how it would affect the world over time. And how we feel about this fact, in the present.”
“You wrote poems about science too?”
“Sometimes. Mostly my poems were about other things, though. I was working on an epic about the Taiping Rebellion, in China.”
“The what?” ask my French relatives, but my paternal grandpa nods, remembering it from his colonial history courses. “I’ll fill you in later,” he says to them with a smile, doubtless thinking I’ve had a good colonial education like him.
“Just one more question, Alexander,” my maternal grandma says to me, hugging me. She always called me Alexander, because my father’ name, like his father’s before him, is Gordon. “Were you happy?”
“Happy? What does it mean? I think I had things I was working on for most o my life. There were periods during which I was miserable, yeah. But after them came a time of rebuilding, and from then on I simply worked ferociously on being happy. And I found working on those things that I liked to work on, or needed to work on, made me happy. Exercising to lose weight. Working on my writing. For a time, playing in a band. Maintaining a web page… uh, that’s too hard to explain. Relaxing into my very good relationship with Lime and letting things take their course naturally. Accepting happiness, even, after all the bad stuff that I’d been through before. Sometimes I had to make hard decisions, very hard decisions. But was I happy? I think my life was a process of working my way into and then through happiness. I think the point wasn’t to be happy all the time, but to live honestly and as well as I could. Nurturing joys and satisfactions, and really seriously following my priorities in life, was what finally settled on as a kind of way to live happily. And since I did that, in the end, for the last few years, I have to say that yes, I was actually happy.”
My grandparents smile, no matter whether any of this makes much sense. They seem happy to see I have some sense of what my life was for and about, and I think they know that only a few years earlier, I would not have had such a sense of things. My grandmothers hug me, each one in sequence, and my grandfathers shake my hand and then give in when I hug them too. And then, I hear a dog barking through the wall, and they tell me, “It’s going to be dark and quiet, and you’ll sleep for a long, long time. The silence is not bad, it’s soothing. Okay? But first, let’s say bye to your dog, Toto.”
And they lead me into the room, and the dog is young again, bounding into my face as I stoop to greet her. She pants, she leaps. She is happy.
Happiness is a simple thing, as simple as the feeling of a beloved dog’s wet tongue on your face, again.