When I was 8, I realized I was going to die — not immediately like the kids on daytime talk shows with the rapid aging disease but eventually like everyone else in my family. My parents were each the youngest children, so there was always a funeral. It was what we did for entertainment. “What funeral’s opening this weekend? Which minister is presiding? Should we call ahead for seats?”
I never understood all the emotion at a funeral. If you believed in heaven, you knew that your loved one wasn’t gone. They were someplace better and you’d see them eventually. Why did I have to put on a suit just because some old person moved to a better neighborhood?
“You don’t know for sure if someone is going to heaven,” my mother pointed out. “Only God knows.”
“Is it really that difficult? Sure, Mrs. Johnson’s fruitcake was awful but other than that, she should be a sure thing. It’s not like she was an axe murderer.”
“Don’t be blasphemous. You still have two years to get that aging disease.”
If I pushed things with my mother, she would remind me that I could still get progeria until I was 10. Those kids were a horror show — wrinkled, rheumy-eyed, and wearing a baseball cap to hide their baldness. They’d obviously gotten on God’s bad side. After one of my mother’s warnings, I’d go to bed convinced I’d wake up old, withered, and grotesque — sort of like Gregor Samsa but with a fondness for Sunday morning political programming. The worst thing was that my mother would still have made me go out and play. I hated playing. I didn’t like sweating or getting my clothes dirty. I just wanted to read or listen to music, but my mother would insist I spend at least an hour outside. I would usually smuggle a comic book in my pants (the Archie digests were best for this) and read it behind the doghouse, occasionally making “playing” noises: “Cobra!” or “Decepticons attack!” would usually suffice.
The one upside, or so I thought, of dying from progeria would be a first-class ticket to heaven. I would have suffered enough to have my many transgressions overlooked.
Not so fast, my mother countered.
“Only God knows what will happen,” she repeated. “But if you were bad enough to get progeria, I wouldn’t pack a sweater.”
At this point, it seemed like everyone was going to hell. No wonder funerals were a weep-fest. All the “homegoing” nonsense was just denial. We would all burn. But I wondered how bad could hell be? There was all this sickness in life. Maybe that’s all hell was — more life. More crap jobs, boring math classes, more family strife… and it never ended. “Homegoing” was a condemnation not a blessing.
Heaven, for me, would just be the end — no more anything. It could be a perennial state similar to when you’re dozing off — asleep enough to feel removed from the world but conscious enough to enjoy it.
I recall a discussion of the after life on Oprah during which this perky blonde in the audience stood up and said that when you look at the world and all its wonders — a nicely prepared steak, a glass of wine, smiling kids, loving spouse, walking along the beach feeling the sand between your toes — it was obvious that this was heaven. Now, the woman sitting behind her looked like she’d have to take out a loan to go to Waffle House, her kids were too hungry to smile, her spouse was loving her sister, and she couldn’t even afford to watch Beaches on cable. She just glared at her. If this was heaven, she might as well hang herself.
The blonde wasn’t entirely wrong. This is the best of all possible worlds because it’s the only one. Life is great for some and terrible for most. But it ends for everyone. There’s some joy in knowing that torture will end, but it must be awful to know that the pleasure you’re experiencing now will also end. That’s why I came to the conclusion when I was 8 that happiness is not an option. But at least whatever we have now will eventually end.