An eight-year-old daughter and her father accidentally talked about death the other day.
She and he were walking their dog Vincent around the neighborhood together. At one point, they started playing a game called Would you rather?
During her turn, the daughter asked, “Would you rather be a snowman or a gingerbread man?”
Before the man could answer, his little girl gave him a serious warning.
“Remember, Daddy,” she said, “snowmen eventually melt.”
“Ah yes,” he told her, “but don’t forget, gingerbread men eventually get eaten.”
Her eyes got huge.
“Oh yeah. Hmm. Which is worse?”
“I don’t know, baby. What do you think?”
So the father and his child spent half their walk debating over what would be a better way to go: being melted or getting eaten.
“Melting takes a while,” she said. “And it makes you look weird while it’s happening.”
To prove her point she pretended to melt and she was right, it looked weird.
“True, true,” he laughed. “And getting eaten happens a lot more quickly.”
He snapped his teeth at her and growled, which made her jump and giggle.
Then she got a serious look.
“Ugh, but you’d have teeth ripping into you the whole time. That would hurt.”
“But so would getting melted by the sun, right? The heat would disintegrate every part of you.”
At that word, the daughter stopped walking.
“Daddy, what does disintegrate mean?”
(Except she said the word slowly, like dee-sin-tuh-grate)
Such a curious kid. He kept it simple.
“When something disintegrates it breaks up into smaller parts. For instance, the snowman disintegrates into water when it melts and the gingerbread man disintegrates into crumbs when it gets eaten.”
“I would never want to dee-sin-tuh-grate. Do people dee-sin-tuh-grate?”
Oh boy, how do you answer that one?
“Sure, sweetie, eventually everything in life does. Some things disintegrate quickly, like a melting snowman. Other things take a lot longer to break down, like plastic bags or your mother’s cooking.”
Not even a smile. She was too busy thinking and figuring things out.
“But what about people? Will I ever dee-sin-tuh-grate?”
“Not for a really long time,” he told her and put his giant arm around her miniature shoulder. “Look, Vincent found a ball.”
Thankfully, the daughter’s young brain switched over to pet-loving mode and she ran to catch up to the dog, who proudly held a dirty green tennis ball in his mouth.
“What’d you find, such a good boy,” she told him.
Over there, two younger beings, a child and her pup, playing fetch together in a schoolyard, laughing and barking, thinking about nothing serious at all.
Over here, one older dad, standing, smiling, watching those two beautiful lives, thinking about death, the most serious thought of all.
Death to a Buddhist isn’t scary or dreadful but simply a doorway to the other side, the same as birth but in the opposite direction. Like most departures, death is the sad beginning of a happy new adventure. But the disintegration part of death should be no uglier or scarier than eggshells are to someone hungry about to eat an omelet.
“Either one would be okay, Daddy.”
The daughter and Vincent had snuck up on him.
“Snow girl or gingerbread girl, either one would be fine.”
“Well, either way I have to dee-sin-tuh-grate, right? If I melt it makes water, and that helps the plants grow. If I get eaten I become food and that helps the person grow. I’m okay with either one. What about you, Daddy?”
The father squeezed her miniature hand with his giant fingers and returned her smile.
“Same as you,” he told her and they headed home.
- Mike Lukas