I asked my mama once what death meant. It was the night of my dearest aunt’s funeral, mama’s younger sister. She died in a car crash, after her tires skidded on an icy patch on an underpass in the city. There was crying and wailing and curses abound, and it was too much for my four year old sensitivities to handle. So I sought refuge in my mother, the only person who wasn’t reduced to bits. Looking back, I realize she must have been holding it in, the way she does to spare me discomfort even now, with her lower lip straining against her teeth, chin thrusted out stubbornly. My strong, wonderful mother.
I climbed into her lap and nuzzled against her chest. “Why do people keep sayin’ momo’s dead…? What’s that mean…?”
Momo was what I called my aunt. It seemed logical to me that if my mother was “mama,” my aunt – who was practically like another mom – would be “momo.” I still call her momo when we reminisce about her (even if I don’t have many memories to divulge).
She sighed heavily and cradled me close, an embrace so tight that it would be suffocating if it wasn’t so incredibly comforting (and so necessary – I needed to be cocooned in my mother’s arms, away from all those scary adults with their emotions and their sobbing) at the time. She swept my hair back from my face and peppered my forehead with kisses before murmuring softly, “Oh, my baby…death…death’s when you sleep for a long, long time, and the dreams are so nice there that you don’t wanna come back from them…”
“She’s not coming back?” That alarmed me. The permanence of something like sleep didn’t seem appealing – certainly not to me, if it meant I would never see momo again. “But why’d she go to sleep?!”
“Well, sometimes…” explaining this seemed to put her at ease. She always took time out to try and explain things to me. Even now, she gets a serene expression on her face when I don’t understand something and she has to explain it. It’s amusing, really.
“Sometimes, you sleep even though you don’t want to…you know how when I’m reading you a really great book and you try to keep awake?”
I nodded vehemently.
“It’s kinda like that.”
I took a second to mull that over. And then, in a tiny voice, I whispered, “Can it happen to anyone…?”
She hesitated, and then nodded, but quickly added, “Most people live for ages before they go into the Big Sleep. Some people even live to be a hundred!”
My eyes widened, “A hundred?” That was the biggest number I knew then – bigger even than a thousand, it seemed to be.
“Yeah…everyone goes into the Big Sleep at some point…some people too soon, some people in sad ways, some people when they’re a hundred and twenty…I know it’s scary-“
I nodded again. It was really scary. She kissed my forehead again.
“It’s scary, but it means you should spend more time doin’ the things you love.”
“Like readin’ books and playin’ on swings?”
She smiled lovingly at me, gently stroking my cheek, “Yes, baby. Like reading books and playing on swings.”
That made the idea more bearable. I wrapped my arms around her neck and we stayed in silence for a little while. After a couple of minutes, I whispered in her ear, “What d’you think she’s dreamin’ about…?”
Her voice wavered when she answered, “…I dunno, baby.”
“I think she’s dreamin’ about us…you, me and the swings.”
She pulled me into an even tighter hug, and though she wouldn’t let me see, I could tell even then that she was crying softly, “I think so too. I think so too.”
From then on, we referred to death as the Big Sleep. We placated ourselves by telling each other stories of what people dreamt of when they passed. It was as cathartic for her as it was for me, and we would even laugh together sometimes. Never did my mother let me see her cry; yet I could always discern the tears that were so apparent in her voice, and rather than make me feel overwhelmed, they comforted me.
It was only when I grew older that I saw my mother cry – only once, at someone’s death, and that too my grandmother’s. On that occasion, it was I who pulled my mother into my arms and hugged her tight and whispered my grandmother’s dreams to her.
“Y-yeah?” came the trembling voice. Her breath was warm against my neck where she had rested her head.
“Gramma lived to be a hundred.”
The memory seemed to click and she couldn’t help but laugh, and I laughed as well. The next morning, we ate breakfast while playing on the swing set.
Before anyone gets all sentimental, this isn’t an anecdotal story! This is purely fictional, and isn’t modeled after anyone else’s experiences, as far as I know anyway. Uhh…I should go back to studying now.