I was a morbid little kid. As young as five years old, I worried about dying when I should’ve been worrying about the structural integrity of my penmanship (actually, I worried about that too). I worried about my mother and my sister getting older, but it was my own mortality that troubled me most. Nights were the worst, when the darkest thoughts always took shape. Then, A Wrinkle In Time saved me.
“What happens when we die?” I asked my mother.
“You’re so young,” she said. “You have your whole life ahead of you. You shouldn’t be worrying about these things.”
I didn’t like that answer. It was a variation of “You’ll understand when you’re older.” It’s dismissive and doesn’t get to the heart of the question. I pressed my mother, but she was never able to give me a satisfying response. So, I turned to my sister.
My sister is ten years older than me, old enough to know things but young enough to relate to me. She was my ambassador in the adult world, conducting reconnaissance missions and reporting back to me.
“Do you think there’s a heaven?” I asked her.
I sprung the question on her one weekend that I stayed over her apartment. She fled our home as soon as she was legally able, to escape our father, and moved to a place in Union City, New Jersey — a tiny, ground-floor apartment with mice, which later became vulnerable to break-ins. But, for me, it was a gateway to the big world.
My sister tried dodging the question. I didn’t know at the time that she was an atheist.
“I don’t think anyone knows what happens when we die.”
“But what do you think happens when we die.”
She wasn’t getting off that easy.
She took her time, collecting her thoughts while I watched her intently, hoping to glean some insight from any micro-expression.
My sister was the first person to show me the bigness of the world. She took me to New York, where, holding my hand, she would jaywalk across the street, something that both exhilarated and frightened me. We were so free crossing those avenues, a modern-day Lewis and Clark unearthing the secrets of the city. She took me to get haircuts there, a place where people were covered with tattoos and piercings, where the mirrors were plastered with magazine cutouts of naked people, some of whom were intertwined and kissing. She must’ve detected my shock, because she told me, “It’s OK. The human body is natural. Sex is natural.” My sister was privy to a big world that I only had a glimpse into. She knew things. I believed she could answer my question.
“When we die,” she began, “our souls float up into the sky and become planets and stars.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Forever,” she decreed.
I felt a balmy sensation wash over me. I liked the idea of becoming something so great, so majestic, standing sentry over the proceedings of the universe until the end of time — a cosmic community.
I knew my sister would have the right answer, but as quickly as she had assuaged my fears, another one reared its head.
“Will we be able to talk to each other?”
Leave it to me to think of logistics in the face of so beautiful an iteration of the circle of life.
“Yes,” she assured me. “We’ll be able to talk to each other.”
At the time, I had not read A Wrinkle In Time, so I didn’t know that she took that idea from the series that would later become my childhood favorite in which Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which were described as ancient star-beings. All I knew was that I felt better. And, as the characters in A Wrinkle In Time, whenever I felt the night creeping in on me, I pictured myself as a star piercing the darkness.
To this day I have never heard a better explanation, and I expect I never will.