When I was about four years old, I remember asking Grandma about death. We all lived in West Lafayette, in the white house with two porches… the one with the barn; the place where Snow-foot and Fluffy and the yellow Tom lived… the place where toads gathered in the window wells and where I took a bath with a green tree frog.
It was springtime, because those little blue-bell flowers were blooming next to the front steps. I remember picking apart one of the flowers—which wasn’t very nice—but I had a reason. I was trying to turn the little bell inside out. For reasons I know longer remember, I had begun thinking of each little bell as the life of a person, and I was wondering how long each would live. Fifty years? I knew how to count, since I watched Sesame street, but little minds have trouble wrapping around those far-away numbers…Maybe I even guessed a hundred. A thousand. But the point is this: I wondered if each bell could start its life over again if you turned it inside out. What if it lived fifty years, then flip, began again as a baby. It could live twice as long… But then, no one wanted to start again as a baby, I thought, because I was all grown up at four years. Maybe it could flip back and forth over and over again, getting two years for each one? But I got stuck in my thinking (and this was pretty complex stuff for a pre-schooler, so that’s not surprising). I worried about what would happen when both sides of the blue bell’s life were used up. What happened when there was nowhere else to go? The real question, of course, was—what happens when you die? Because in my very complex ideas about blue-bells, I had discovered that no matter what I did, I couldn’t keep it the same. Change happened. It would age, even if it aged at half the rate. It would die. And that meant nothing was permanent. Not even the people I loved. Not even me.
I do remember trying to explain this to Grandma. I don’t think I explained it very well, though, and I believe I threw a tantrum at some point because she didn’t understand me. I didn’t have enough words to say then what has taken me almost a whole page to write now. But I do think that this—and a troubling question about how long forever was—marked the beginning of an important idea. Everything changes. And we often do not like it.
But change is good. It is progress. It impedes stagnation. It provides food for thought and material for fiction–
And from it, we grow.