I don’t know if there were other kids. So far no one I’ve asked has confirmed. I’ll probably never be sure if on different days or in different cities, other sixth graders were tracing my footsteps at the public library. Nervously shuffling past the popular reads — Harry Potter, A Wrinkle In Time — toward a dustier shelf of the children’s nook. It’s sweet how nervous you get when you’re little and think you’re getting away with something bad. A rogue finger in the mixing bowl, a story you didn’t ask permission to read. Kids are such boring criminals. They don’t even know what bad means.
My staple was Chicken Soup for the Kids’ Soul, which seemed innocuous enough. The book offered true stories for children on a number of topics. Family, school, first crushes. But I picked it up for one reason only, each time skipping directly to page 171, the fifth chapter, the one labeled “Death & Dying.” The title’s bold pair of letter Ds, black and ominously serifed, seemed almost onomatopoeic: Death, Dying. Even a person who didn’t speak English could tell what these words meant, just from the look and sound of those unrelenting Ds, the beating of the tongue on the roof of the mouth like a war drum or the blow of a club.
In Death & Dying there was one story I kept returning to. It was short, less than five pages, which surprised me when I went back and checked years later, because I remember the thing being torturously drawn-out and climactic, like a historical docudrama. Braveheart, more like. Or In Cold Blood.
In the space of a thousand words, the story told of a boy just my age who, one ordinary day after football practice, was horsing around in the backseat of a car with a jump rope. The cord got caught outside the window just as it was rolling up, and as the glass rose like a noose in reverse, it slowly strangled him to death.
No specifics were mentioned beyond this. I don’t know why there was no babysitter or parent present, why no one noticed the suffocating preteen in the backseat. The story was written by the kid’s grief-stricken best friend, who clearly hadn’t been pressed for details. It ended with the football team dedicating their championship win that season to him. At 11, I found it all unbearably moving. The plot gaps didn’t occur to me.
I must have reread this story a dozen times. My guts fluttered like cicadas every time the death scene approached, as if this time, maybe this time, the outcome would be different and the sixth grader’s life wouldn’t be snatched away instantly, conclusively, like a penny dropping into a well.
But he kept dying, and I kept coming back. I was hooked on getting just that close to this little boy’s moment of expiration, this boy just my age, hoping in some subconscious way that if I read it enough, I’d get a glimpse at what it feels like to die.
I have never been a depressive person. It’s not that I wanted to die as a freckle-faced 11-year-old — in fact, just the opposite. As a kid, my attitude towards death was made up of this bewildered cocktail of fascination and phobia. The way that those with a paralyzing fear of shark attacks are the very people who most eagerly anticipate Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, counting down the minutes until the season premiere and live-Tweeting each reenacted Great White encounter with drug-thumbed enthusiasm.
I was an unusually small sixth grader, in the 5th height percentile for my age with gray eyes and a tangled sheet of brown hair that fell from my head to my waist over a stretch of 12 inches. I was no match for death. Still, I found myself seeking directions to its door — not to enter, but at least to open it, and see what was inside.
Some people come from a long lineage of restaurant owners or classical musicians. I was born into a family of scientists. My mother’s mother was one of the first female bacteriologists in the state of Louisiana. My mother’s father was a bacteriologist too. My mother is a developmental biologist, my dad a neuroscientist, and my 21-year-old brother a computer scientist in Silicon Valley.
My family members have dark hair, dark irises, thin bodies. They exercise in the mornings and wear rectangular glasses, sensible shoes. It’s an academic look. To match, they are exhaustingly intelligent, handsomely decorated with national science awards and degrees. On their bedside tables sit not the bible or a bestseller from Oprah’s book list, but half-edited grant proposals and the latest issue of Cell. Where the typical American fireplace mantle displays soccer trophies and family photos, ours brandishes honorary doctorates and unfairly won school science fair medals (in 8th Grade, I — or more accurately, my mother — won first place for a project targeting a singular protein’s role in cancerous cell division, an experiment my mom’s graduate students at Johns Hopkins had been working on vigorously for months. I got to leave school early one day to dissect fruit fly ovaries under a $250,000 microscope next to a nervous postdoctoral candidate from China named Xu Zhao. The other 8th graders never stood a chance).
But even outside the lab, my family contains some of the most intensely curious people I know — not gossipy or prying, but genuinely curious in that they’re always thrilled by the possibility of discovering something new. While dinner table conversations at friend’s houses consisted of small talk about the neighbors, ours concerned debates over the last observed supernova.
“It was Kepler’s Supernova in 1604,” my dad would confirm. “It was so bright you could see it with the naked eye.”
“But that’s only counting our galaxy,” my kid brother would rebuttal through a mouthful of baby carrots. “I’m talking supernovas anywhere in the observable universe.” Dad’s brow would furrow deeper, and the match would carry on.
I did not participate. Unlike the rest of our household, my childhood dream was to become a Broadway actress. I preferred Meryl Streep to Marie Curie; Tegan and Sara to Watson and Crick. For this, I was convinced my family misunderstood me deeply.
Maddeningly, my sibling, sporting the same inquisitive squint and sky-high IQ as our Einsteinian parents, would contribute with gusto to each nightly discussion. But I refused, opting instead to sit back, pick at my plate, and make fun of what everyone was wearing. “You guys are nerds,” I’d snort, to which they’d giddily reply, “Ah, nerdiness! That must be a recessive gene.”
As it turned out, the qualities of a scientist that I was so persuaded had skipped me — the aloofness, the need to question — were not recessive, but simply dormant. Maybe not even dormant. I probably suppressed them on purpose, that’s what teens do to infuriate their parents. Regardless, in the end, I’d be cursed with the same agonizing sense of reason as the rest of them.
I recall one instance where reason failed my parents. It’s one of maybe five occasions during my childhood when their unwavering logic was hijacked by something more like fear. But this example glows just bright enough in my brain to have remained an outlier, a rare fossil in my memory, for almost twenty years.
It started as simply as this: I was four years old, dining on cut-up wedges of hamburger at our little stucco A-frame in Baltimore. There was Heinz ketchup on the table. I was sitting in a big girl chair. Burger nearly eaten, I remember looking up at my parents and asking what I now recognize is the one question that to scientists, inspires the equivalent tension of asking a normal parent where babies come from. Probably more.
“Mommy, Daddy,” I squeaked, “What is God?”
I must have heard the word for the first time at my Jewish preschool. It was the only decent childcare in Baltimore City my parents could afford at the time. Plus, my Dad was going through a cultural phase. I can’t imagine they thought this would never come up, what with all the prayers before snacktime and acoustic, worshipful sing-a-longs. I guess they hoped all the God stuff would be in Hebrew.
My 38-year-old father peered over his tremendous bifocals at my mother, young and waiflike in a cashmere turtleneck, and they exchanged a twisted expression.
“Well,” my dad finally spoke, readying himself for a lengthy explanation.
“Sweetie,” he inhaled, his pitch elevated, “God is… an entity. No, a concept. A widely accepted concept.”
My mother shook her head and began cutting up more of my hamburger.
“Sweetie,” he began again. “God… some say… is a thing… a thing… that lives in all of us.”
He concluded there, shoulders tense, dissatisfied with his own response. I shrugged and continued half-missing my mouth with beef patty.
In years to come, my parents will vehemently argue my recollection of these events. They’ll defend that they would have never given such a cloudy, spiritual description of God. And it’s true. Knowing my parents, I can’t believe they did not provide a longer, more passionately factual description of religion and belief, conclusively shutting down the existence of any ubiquitous being promised to greet you in the sky after death.
But they didn’t.
Over the course of my upbringing, my parents will instill in me a strong scholarly suspicion, a compulsion to probe for truth when things seem fishy and never to take the intellectually easy way out. But I remember my dad’s flustered response at the dinner table that night. I don’t blame him. To have to explain the loneliness of mortality to a four-year-old was simply too much to bear, even for him.
Scientists don’t believe in God. It comes with the profession. Even if they send their kids to Sunday school or say grace before meals, they’re only doing it to blend in. You can’t be a good researcher and a person of blind, unevidenced faith at the same time. It just wouldn’t make sense.
That said, nobody likes an atheist. People find the level of logic required to be one cold, off-putting. Most nonbelievers sense this I think. Even my parents threw me a Bat Mitzvah. They wore the tallits, lit the candles, said the blessings.
I get the appeal of God. It’s a comforting notion that life is not meaningless. I like the idea of praying too. I did it a few times as a kid. Not to God necessarily, but more as a general call into the open. Please let me get an A on my math test, I’d whisper, hands clasped. Please let my violin recital go well. It felt right.
But as I got a little older so began my conclusion, like many a Montell before me, that God in the classic sense seemed too easy. Even if science didn’t have all the answers, the ones offered by religion were a fable, I decided, designed to neatly assuage our fears of the unknown. A huge part of that unknown being death.
As a young teen, I was fascinated by people who believed in God. I itched to peek inside their minds, to find out if they truly thought angels and devils and all that were real or if deep down they knew it was all made up. In seventh grade, I skipped Hebrew school one Sunday to accompany a friend to her Evangelical youth group. She had the biggest boobs in our class, wore mini skirts, and had a born-again mother who drank beer in the afternoon. I was curious to see how Jesus felt about all this. I was curious about a lot of things.
The youth group was held in a beige room in a large, flat building that looked more like a warehouse than a house of God. Seated around a wheeled conference table, the other kids were pale and straight-haired, all wearing tight graphic t-shirts that read things like “Touchdown” and “Heartbreaker.” It took all my willpower not to blurt out that I wasn’t really one of them, that I was only there to study them, like flies in a test tube. I felt giddy and nervous, like an undercover spy.
The youth group leader, sunburnt and 40-something, gave a lesson on hell and sin. “The cowardly, the abominable, and the unbelieving shall have their day in the fiery lake,” he told us. I listened quietly, staring at his white, scuff-marked sneakers. After twenty minutes, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I tightened my ponytail and raised my hand.
“So, am I going to hell?” I said. “Even if I’m a good person. If I don’t believe in God, I’m going to hell?” The leader gave me a crinkled smile. “If you don’t believe in God,” he said, “how can you know right from wrong anyway?” I was 13 and couldn’t think of a good answer. “I just have a feeling, I guess,” I said. “That feeling is God,” he responded, stroking my forearm. “May I pray for your soul?”
I, like many nonbelievers, hate when someone asks to pray for me. It’s terribly beside the point. That beet-faced youth group leader was convinced that without religion, my moral compass was pointed way off course. People like that think religion and virtue are intrinsically linked. But I disagree. I think religion is meant to give people answers, not ethics. To offer a well-packaged narrative explaining life’s most unexplainable thing. No mystery, no fear.
Now, I don’t know if you remember or even experienced something like this at all, but there’s a moment you have when you’re a young nonbeliever and haven’t thought too hard about the universe yet, when all the sudden you realize you’re going to die one day, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not your mom, not your dad, not the president; it’s just a flash of light, then nothing. You don’t get a new life, you don’t enter a new phase. You just fall asleep forever. And no matter how well behaved you are, or how careful, or how hard you fake pray to no one, it’s coming, and no one can save you, and there is no God, just us, just this, then darkness. How can there just be darkness? you insist, What is that like? And then you realize that no one can answer you. Because everyone who’s ever died is nothing now. And someday, you will be too.
I remember this moment. I was in my twin size bed with the lime green sheets. It was humid, the summer before fourth grade. I don’t know why it came then. I don’t remember anything triggering it. I’d never even known anyone who had died. It just hit me like a dodge ball to the stomach. I clutched my Build-A-Bear and lay awake, sweating until daybreak.
When you grow up, you start having more immediate issues to keep you up at night — relationship stuff, job stuff. But when you’re a kid with a fairly comfortable life and nothing else on your mind, sometimes the only thing left to worry about is the biggest thing there is. Your head is just clear enough to see it.
By the winter of 2007, my mental clarity had been gracelessly replaced by the concerns of high school. I was 15. My learner’s permit and virginity hung in the balance. I was still in the fifth height percentile for my age, and my mess of brown hair hadn’t changed either. But now I had B cups and an iPod and knew everything in the universe.
The first day of winter break. My best friend Molly and I holed ourselves up in my burgundy-painted room, smoking a bowl of grey-tinted weed we bought for $20 an eighth from a freshman named T-Bag. We lit incense and laughed until we couldn’t breathe.
After no more than two hours, we were in that hazy, tranquil state of coming down when one of us was struck with the idea of drafting unofficial wills. Last wills. “That’s genius,” we agreed. “How have we not thought of this sooner?”
And so. Sporting long moody hair and tights ripped on purpose, the two of us lumbered down from our pot den. We retrieved yellow construction paper and pink markers from the crafts cabinet. Then, in ironic bubble letters, hearts dotting the eyes, we neatly spelled out how we’d like our belongings distributed, our bodies disposed of, and our funerals celebrated, were we to die untimely deaths.
The whole thing was our version of a morbid joke, and we got a kick out of fantasizing about our elaborate memorial services. Neither of us had any idea what an actual, legal will was supposed to look like, but that wasn’t the point. We interpreted the process simply as a person’s very last opportunity to be the center of attention.
First, I delegated that my parents collect all my writings up to my death and sell them to Random House to be published in a poignant posthumous collection. I wanted a charity for struggling artists set up in my name. I outlined that my body be cremated in a bonfire at our beach house in North Carolina and that my friends and family spare no expense in personally dispersing teaspoons of my ashes across the following locations: New Zealand, Spain, Hawaii, Sicily, and the Serengeti — all the places I’d most wanted to visit but never got the chance before my tragic early passing.
After we were finished, Molly and I proudly adhered our documents to the fridge with plastic magnets shaped like fruit and promised to update them every Christmas from there on out.
At 15, the only person I’d ever known that died was my Uncle Tom. He was related by marriage and I only saw him once a year, so I didn’t know him that well. But I liked him. He was sweet and quiet, a Nashville native with a ponytail who taught me how to fish and play pool. He’d died of brain cancer a couple years earlier after a decline so breakneck I barely remember it.
We didn’t go to Tom’s funeral. I’m not even sure he had one. We don’t have many of those in my family — atheists and funerals tend not to mix. With no vision of the afterlife, there’s nothing to do at a funeral but face the grim, cushionless reality that your loved one has been reduced to fertilizer. Maybe that’s the healthy thing to do, but all I know is that one day, Uncle Tom and I were catching spot croaker off the Cape Hatteras Beach pier, and one day, I didn’t have an Uncle Tom anymore.
There is well-supported evidence that smart people live longer. It’s got something to do with the correlation between quick learning and overall system integrity. Either way, I’ve found this to be true. It explains why most of the normal people in my family have croaked young, while all the hard thinkers survive.
Of all my extended family members, my favorites have always been my mother’s parents. The bacteriologists. We call my mom’s mom “Grand-mère,” because even though she isn’t technically French, she and my grandfather, Paw Paw, loved traveling to France together more than anything in the world. Paw Paw and Grandmere loved the culture so much that when they retired, they spent half the year every year thereafter in Paris. They’d stay in cozy apartments with chaise lounges and balconies. They’d attend French plays in the evenings and eat fattening foods in advisable portions. With Paw Paw’s full mustache and Grandmere’s permanently chic, unamused expression, they always looked as French as anyone ever could, to me.
Grandmere was 81 when she died in June 2011. I was spending the summer in Los Angeles when my dad called me to deliver the news. It wasn’t sudden — Grandmere had been sick for several years. “She had such a good, long life,” my dad told me.
When we got off the phone, I didn’t break down in tears. It’s not as if I watched Grandmere die right before my eyes. It was hard for me to understand what her being dead even meant. For her or for me.
That’s not to say it wasn’t sad when Grandmere went. Paw Paw wrote her a poem and posted it on her memorial website, a 20-line rhyming thing that still makes me weep when I read it even now. There’s a foggy layer of grief that takes over when someone you love dies. Like everything surrounding you starts moving in slow motion, as if underwater. Even if you can’t wrap your head around how to feel or react, you still sense that dizzying change.
Like with Uncle Tom, there was no funeral for Grandmere. That made it even harder for her absence to sink in. The strangest thing about it was to see Paw Paw alone. He started telling us he loved us every time we got off the phone. It was always in French — “je t’aime, je t’embrasse” — but either way, he’d never been like that before.
A few months after Grandmere died, I started having these vivid dreams. I’d walk into the living room of my house in Baltimore or sit down at a restaurant table with my family, and she’d be there, sitting casually, sipping an aperitif. Conversations and everyday business would carry on like normal until suddenly, I’d look to my mother and say, “Wait, Mom, isn’t Grandmere supposed to be dead?”
And then I’d wake up.
Understandably, Grandmere’s passing took a lot of the romance out of death for me. It also made it seem less climactic, strange as it sounds. There’s no orchestral swell when someone dies, like in the movies. The event itself is quiet. And then it’s over. And then everyone is sad for a while. And then one day, in their own way, everyone moves on.
In the following months, I made a few key amendments to my unofficial will. I never did get rid of that thing. It made me feel like my life meant something. The will quantified my worth on paper.
The thing became less of a joke. I switched it from a physical document penned in pink and flaunted publically to an electronic one that only I could see and that I could edit any time. I nixed the mandates to spread my ashes through the Earth’s many time zones. The details became all around more practical. Easier on my survivors.
Around that time, I found myself reading a lot about death. This helped. A favorite was Stiff by Mary Roach, a wry book of nonfiction, which inspects the reality of death from a number of angles — from the smelliness of decay to the connections medical students forge with their cadavers. I learned about things like alternative interment and eco-friendly burials, one of which I’ll be having, according to the current version of my electronic will.
One of the most exceptional things books like Stiff taught me was that in other parts of the world, people don’t react to death the same way we do. Not every culture treats it with such tight-lipped anxiety. In Japan, Buddhists hold services of remembrance for months and years following a loved one’s death, so they’re never forgotten. Tribal Venezuelans pound the deceased’s bones to pumice, blend them with banana, and serve them to the family for consumption. Death is confronted, no matter how inconvenient.
But here, death rituals are sanitized. Neat, like surgery. We whisk a body away the moment it’s pronounced dead, pump it with chemicals, and dress it up as if it were going to synagogue. We spritz it with cologne. We place it in an expensive wooden box like a cigar and try not to imagine that’s a person in there as a machine lowers it into a plot purchased five years ago from a man with an Armani pocket square. It all serves one purpose: to put death at a distance. All refusing to consider that the further we inch from this thing, the longer we look away, the more afraid we become.
My whole life, I’ve wanted to look away from death and right at it, both at the same time. I’ve wanted everything to be okay. To be brave. I guess that’s what always motivated the fascination: this desire to self-preserve. To prepare, like opening a retirement account forty years in advance, so when the time comes, I’ll be ready. And in turn, the people who love me will be a bit more ready, too.
Sometimes though, I admit, it still feels good to fantasize. Thankfully, I’m no longer a nervous sixth grader at a public library. My life is no longer impossibly big and without context. But I think fantasy, when placed against the backdrop of perspective, can be a good thing. Like spirituality for nonbelievers: a set of thoughts that may not be rational, but that help you reckon with big things in a way that makes some poetic sense.
I play this game with new friends sometimes, to test whether we’ll be compatible in the long run, where I’ll look them in the eye and ask, “If you could handpick the way you’re going to die, even if it isn’t likely or even possible, how would you want to go?” A common answer is to die peacefully in your sleep. And while that’s certainly nice for the real world, to me, it’s not even close.
If I could handpick an impossible death, I’d want it to be invisible and enormous, all at once. In the minutes before it happens, I’d want to disappear from Earth. I would float up into space, far above the people I’d known and the beautiful places I didn’t go and the God I never believed in, up high into the universe, to another galaxy, looking down at the globe. And there, when I had the perfect view, I’d explode like a supernova, so no one who ever loved me would have to see me go. But thousands of years later, at the speed of light, the glow of my memory would reach the Earth again, lighting up the night sky. Bright, big, unafraid.