On Death

On the cusp of an old couch I find myself at the start of an awkward conversation with my sister that I always knew would come. She wants to know what it means to die.

Biting back the fright of hearing her voice shape the words, I begin to tell her the truth. I tell her the universe ends the moment you die.

In the pause that follows, she stares. That isn’t right, she says then, because the universe didn’t end when Papa died.

The universe isn’t a constant thing, I try to explain. I don’t expect her to understand. We don’t all live in the same one, did you know? I don’t hear the same things you do, nor do you see the same colours as I. You make your own universe in your head, like a house of paper birds, and everything collapses once you are no longer there to see it.

But that is not what she wants to hear. She wants to hear about God. She wants to hear that consciousness is immortal. That her father loves her even now, from beyond the sound of the sun. That she may return to his love someday.

But I know that no astronomer, amidst all his wandering between exoplanets and stars, has ever found that infinitely large garden in the upper cosmic echelons. No geographer has mapped the coordinates of the gate to Hades, nor crossed the Nile eastward to find a jackal-headed god weighing hearts.

Our father--simply, scientifically, isn’t there anymore.

I don’t want to remember his face in its last pallour.

I want to remember his redness when he, despite all his efforts, could not uproot that decrepit old tree in the backyard and had to resort to sawing it in two. I want to remember how it was to hear his car round the bend after I’d waited an hour at the bus stop, watching the sky turn purple and the lights cascade down the neighbouring blocks. His chin and the speckling of aftershave, the crumple of the damp towel over his neck, his handwriting, the way he pushed his glasses up his nose.

But try as I do, I can remember only the faded-paper face. I remember months spent teetering on the edge of grief, watching his cheeks collapse and his fingers blacken with the medication that was attacking everything but what it should.

I remember the stench of flowers, the printed condolences, the cyanide ache that seized me the day my mother stumbled in like a drunkard in business clothes, and could not wrench the words out of her throat.

Not his singing, and not his morning tea, and not the sting of his cane on my palm while the tears boiled out of my eyes.

The meaning of life grows stunningly clear when it is considered in relation to the universe.

Life has been unwinding from the beginning. Waiting for the stray space object to snap from its orbit and meet the earth in an apocalyptic kiss. We are only a rock in space, iron core churning, a mote of dust in a stream of light.

There is no meaning to life. There is only the little personal room that is the brain, and everything comes from inside: the colours of stars that we designated red and blue, the shape of an atom as it courses through probability. It exists because we know it does.

And that is why we fear to die. Because when we die, so does the universe.

I tell my sister, perhaps he is still here if we still remember him. For that where his ghost may be found: in the neural connections that he left in the minds of all who knew him, in silver nitrate stains on film, and in photographs, framed and fading.

We're talking about him now, aren't we? How can we talk about something that does not exist? She seems to prefer this conclusion to my last, and leaves to become a child once more.

But now, alone on the cusp of the couch, I find myself struggling, fighting, to resolve with words the shape of something that can no longer be grasped, no longer be read on any meter. He is gone. I can know all these things, know my biology, the entropy of decomposition, the chemical equation for decay, and still hate myself for not loving him before he left.