Where We Go After
I remember very clearly the morning my weeping classmate sauntered into our fourth-grade classroom and handed my teacher a note excusing his tardiness. He was an hour or two late to school that day, which was odd for him; he was usually in his seat when I walked into the classroom each morning, all his things laid neatly on the desk and ready for the day. On that particular morning, however, the boy’s eyes were as red as an apple, colored so brightly it was as though they shone like the morning sun. I noticed them when he raised his head for a moment to glance around the room, perhaps trying to figure out who was looking at him. Only when he looked back down could I see a small dot of light reflected in a tiny puddle on the desk. He was careful not to soak his worksheets or the name tag taped to the edge of the desk when he gathered his tears there. He had a reputation for being the quiet kid, but he was much quieter on that day than usual. It was like something had sucked the spirit out of him.
I barely knew the boy, yet I seemed to be the only person who was utterly fixated on him. The teacher somehow failed to notice that something was awry with one of her students; instead, she taught her lessons and spoke to the other students as though everything was a-okay. Her voice on that particular day was nothing but background noise to me. The things she presented to us that morning and tried to instill in our young minds came to me as incoherent blathering, like she was speaking a language I had never before heard. Of course, it’s purely human nature to focus on things more easily managed, but what can I say except that I was also just a boy? I remember looking at the teacher only once, and my conscience screamed at her to pay some attention to the weeping child sitting before her (although vocal screams would have perhaps fallen on deaf ears anyway). But I did notice the boy look up and stare at me with those bloodshot eyes, and for a blip of time when it seemed as though the clock had frozen, the boy and I locked eyes, and his lips curled into the saddest and weakest smile I had ever seen.
As it never failed to, excitement washed over me when the bell rang for recess, and I was swept up in the crowd of children pushing each other through the door and bolting toward the playground. We could see the playground from the classroom, but the distance between the two was long, and my legs ached when I arrived at the swingset. My smile faded when I saw the boy sitting alone on a bench some yards away; his back was bent, and his face rested in his small hands. His melancholic aura radiated from him, striking me and me alone.
My feet met the ground, a whirlwind of curiosity and sorrow moving my legs, compelling me to take the empty spot next to him. When the boy lifted his head and sat up straight, I saw for the first time his blue eyes, wet and deep and mysterious as the ocean, being assaulted by a redness marked with anger and dejection. I placed my hand on the boy’s knee and looked into his tear-drenched eyes, and I could only hope that the presence of someone who cared would lift his spirits, even if only a little.
“Why are you sad?” I queried, the mannerisms of a young boy striking my intrigue.
The boy sniffled and wiped his eyes with his jacket sleeve. “My dog died last night,” he said, the pain ever fresh in his quavering voice.
He looked down at his lap again, and I watched a teardrop fall from his eye and leave a stain on his denim pants. He sniffled again and muttered, “She was there when I went to school yesterday, but when I came home, she was gone. My mom said she had to take her to the vet while I was at school, and that’s where she went to dog heaven.”
“That really stinks.”
I lifted my hand off the boy’s knee and stood up. He looked up at me as I looked down at him, and in his eyes, I saw a glimmer of hope and happiness, as though a playful, happy child within him was trying to break out of its prison of grief. I extended my hand to him, and with a delicate squeeze (if one could call it a squeeze at all), he brought himself to his feet and looked into my eyes. When he let go of my hand, his lips formed the same sad smile, but his eyes told the story of a young boy thankful that someone cared enough to ask. When I prepared to leave school that day, I walked by his desk and noticed the puddle had dried.
I can’t remember the boy being upset at school again until perhaps two or three years after the death of his beloved dog when he walked into math class one afternoon wearing a hoodie—a rare feat for the boy. The hood was pulled over his head and partly masked his face, but the same melancholic aura radiated from him and struck me once again. He approached the desk next to mine and sat down, throwing his backpack on the floor and resting his arms on the desk. I could only watch the boy from the corner of my eye—the last thing I wanted was to intrude—and I soon dedicated my undivided attention to the teacher, waiting for class to begin.
“Chester?” the boy whispered, and I could feel his line of sight pierce my skin and tap on my mind for attention.
I turned my head toward him, my eyes burning as he stared into them. It was almost as if he was searching for something but didn’t know what for. He was pleading, craving something I had. I glanced at the teacher, and when I saw her speaking to a student at her desk, I looked into his eyes and saw red streaks in them. “Yeah?”
His voice slightly trembling, the boy asked, “Where do you think people go when they die?”
I was raised in a very religious household. God was a commonality in my family and a powerful force that bound us together; still, until that point, I had questioned for most of my life why my parents sent me to Bible camp and Sunday school and why they were so adamant that we attend weekly services. Religion provided answers for life’s biggest questions, answers I had been fed for years. As the memories of those experiences played seemingly before my eyes like a movie I’d seen too many times, I answered, “I think we travel to Heaven and spend the rest of eternity in the realm of God.”
The boy furrowed his brow. “Is that what you believe, or is that what you’ve been taught?”
I shrugged. “Both, I guess.”
The boy looked down at his desk and sniffled, and memories of the first time I spoke to him flooded my mind. “I ask because I lost my grandfather over the weekend,” he told me.
I nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Something’s missing in my life now, you know? Almost like a void opened up inside of me. But I hope something can fill that void if I can find something, anything, that tells me he’s in a better place.”
“Do you not believe in the afterlife?”
The boy sniffled again, but his sniffling had become quieter and more concealed. “I don’t…” the boy started, his voice turning into a silent sigh. “I don’t know what I believe.”
“Hey,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. He looked at me with sullen eyes, and although tears glossed those eyes, a little bit of hope broke through the sadness. “Your grandpa’s in a better place. I know that for a fact.” When the ends of his mouth came up a tad, I took my hand off his shoulder and looked back at the teacher, watching him in the corner of my eye as he pulled his hoodie back a little.
A child’s first encounter with mortality is a significant one. That encounter shows them that they will one day meet their demise because someone close to them met theirs. It makes them realize that they will end up dead one day irrespective of their accomplishments or status. A void is left when someone close to the child dies, and such a void evokes a sense of sadness and grief deeper than they had ever felt before. The void opened by death may lead them to cry on the soil under which their loved ones are buried, and while those tears may bring new life to a plant, they cannot resurrect those whom they have lost. A corpse is but a corpse, a sack of flesh and bone rotting in the ground, the shell of a person who has lost their sense of being and seen the end of the final stage of life. The child may fear death or just as easily accept it, but regardless of how they perceive it, they come to know it as a part of life and a fate shared by all who have ever walked the planet Earth.
I stayed with the boy and became a man with him, and we spent significant parts of our lives together. We often spoke to each other about life and its meaning and the experiences that come with it. Our families grew very close over the years, and I came to love that man as though he were my brother. He was particularly wary of religion and detested it when tragedy struck, though he was hesitant to discuss religion with practically everyone. Still, tragedy struck the poor man more than it should strike any person, and I can’t say I didn’t pity him more than I pitied anyone else. Such a time was when his mother, a strong and beautiful woman who birthed him and his siblings, who gave him life in the beginning and a renewed lease on it many times after, flatlined in a well-lit hospital room after a debilitating stroke. Two months after the death of his mother came the inexplicable death of the one woman with whom he shared his life, to whom he owed his life, and for whom he gave everything he had. Although he knew he would live the rest of his days with his better half somewhere beyond our plane of existence, he never sought another romantic relationship, for his love was reserved solely for her. Years later, his daughter—his only child and a wife and mother herself—died alone on the freeway in the darkness of the night, and I reminded him of his will to live when the demise of a being to whom he gave life and loved over himself and the world nearly led to his own. In his eighties, the man, seemingly out of nowhere, described a sudden religious awakening he had experienced and asked me to accompany him to his first-ever church service. I’m still unsure what led to such an awakening for the once-sworn atheist, but I was drowning in pride when I opened the church door for him on that Sunday morning and submerged him in a sea of love and brotherhood.
I sit now in the whitewashed lobby of a nursing home while men in blue scrubs carry a body bag out of the room once occupied by my friend. He turned 97 today, and until about three days ago, he was in excellent health. I don’t know why he died or if he expected it, but I find solace in the fact that he used his last words to wish me well and express his happiness that he would be reunited with his wife and daughter and all the others he had lost throughout his life in a few short minutes. When I noticed he had passed, a tear ran down my cheek, and I thought back to that day in math class when he asked me about the afterlife. I can only hope now that my friend found the answers for which he was looking, and I look forward to the day I meet him again, whenever and wherever that may be.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.