At what age did you realize you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?
What an interesting question. As I flipped through my memory at the speed of lightning (whom do I think I’m kidding? It’s only 8 a.m. Nothing happens at the speed of lightning this early!) a picture came clear in my mind, so that’s the one I’m going to go with.
We lived in an apartment building in north Minneapolis. I think I was about five years old. It was summer, I think, because there were no sweaters, coats, jackets, or other cold-weather signs. I don’t have a clear memory of the time of day, but other kids were out so I’m thinking it was after breakfast for most of us.
Across the street and kitty-cornered from our building, there was a park where we all liked to play. On this particular day, there was quite a crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk running along the park. There were vehicles in the street blocking traffic. I realize now that they were emergency vehicles, one probably being the wagon from the morgue. There was a policeman standing on the corner across from our building, guiding traffic and looky-loos away from the cluster of people and vehicles.
Of course, the other kids and I wondered what was going on. We started to cross the street when the officer stopped us. I remember him saying, “You kids stay on you own block until this is all cleared up. Stay out of the way.” That was back in the day when you obeyed a policeman, so we just clustered on our sidewalk and watched from the distance of about half a block.
Soon, there was some commotion behind the officer as a couple of workers rolled what I now know as a gurney out of the front door of a little house across the street from the park. The gurney had what looked like a big, long, black bag on it, strapped down so it wouldn’t slide. The workers lifted the gurney into the back of one of the vehicles, then slammed the doors shut, got into the front, and drove off.
Apparently the excitement was over. The people began to drift away, and we called out to the officer to ask if we could cross the street now. I clearly remember that he crossed to us instead, and stood there talking with us for several minutes. We, of course, wanted to know what had happened. He said something like this:
“Well, you kids probably didn’t know her, but old Mrs. Smith died last night while she was sleeping. Her friend went over to see her, and found her dead in her bed. She was very old, and it looks like she just fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Nothing to worry about, Now you kids go play, and obey the traffic rules!”
Right. An old lady dies in her sleep and it’s nothing to worry about. Sure. Bunch of little kids standing there with eyes as big as saucers thinking something like, “WHAT?? You can DIE in your SLEEP? I’ll NEVER go to sleep again!!”
It was a pretty silent bunch of kids who wandered back to their apartments that morning, looking for a mom or dad who could explain this rather surprising situation.
And that was the first time I remember realizing that someday, maybe tomorrow morning, it would be me.