It was merciful.
There I was, looking down at the contorted shape that had been my car, thinking that the idea I'd been trying to scribble on the back of one of my business cards probably hadn't been worth it, after all. As the flames that started in the puddle under the engine quickly engulfed it, I concluded that this wasn't going to be one of those near-death experiences, and it only took a short look at my body to confirm that, to paraphrase some Madison Avenue type, death was the new life.
I watched myself for a few more seconds, thinking I hadn't done so badly. I wasn't too far out of shape. My face and form weren't all that ungainly. I actually regretted what the fire was about to do to me in there. Closed casket, definitely. I couldn't watch. I pulled away and took stock of my situation.
Forty-five years old, and already, I belonged to the ages. The small design firm I had managed to keep solvent was someone else's concern now. By rights, it should pass to Dave and Irma, who I'd come to rely on more and more, but I wasn't sure they could do it, legally. I hoped they would at least start a new company together -- I think they'd be good at it, even if they didn't seem to have the confidence.
At the moment, I had nothing. Fair's fair, I didn't really need anything. I could float around. Was I dressed? Wearing, perhaps, a ghostly pair of Dockers with a pressed shirt and a vest? It didn't feel like it, and it didn't feel unlike it. Whatever. It was sufficient. So now what? Do I do something? Do I go somewhere? Heaven? Purgatory? Relive my life now past, like the movie about that small-town cemetery?
What is the meaning of life?
The thought came to my mind like any other, but there was something different about it. A different voice, or a different typeface. It wasn't my own thought. I realized I now had a task. Homework, or maybe a final exam. I had to figure out the meaning of life.
My life? Life in general? No answer. Any explanation apparently has to come from me. The clock is ticking. Use only a Number Two pencil. As the emergency vehicles started showing up, I willed myself along the way I was going when I had so rudely interrupted myself. Home. I was heading home.
Home. My progress was a little unsteady. I was distracted by things I saw along the way. There was so much going on along the familiar route. I saw a family of mice in a culvert. How could they live there? What would they do when it rained? They reminded me suddenly of my own family, and my -figurative- heart fell. My family! They didn't know yet, did they? I hurried along a little faster, then paused again to look at one of those roadside crosses people put up when someone they know is killed on or near the road. It barely registered on me when I was alive, but it had been there for two years. The flowers on it hadn't been there for two years; they looked a week old at the oldest. Would Elaine put up one of those for me? Elaine! I stopped looking at the cross and made for our apartment.
Once there, I determined that I could pass through a wall. No real surprise there. Elaine was in the living room watching a kid show with our two boys. The stuff six- and eight-year-olds watch. They were on the floor about a foot from the screen. I went to Elaine and tried to get her attention. I think I was relieved that nothing I said or did got through to her. I tried with Rodney, and then with Jacob. I even checked to see if I could mess with the TV. Nothing. Then the phone rang.
I didn't want to watch. I wanted to fly away and not think about it. I was strangely unemotional about my own death, but the idea of watching my family cope with it was painful. Still, I stayed and watched as she told Rod to turn the sound down, picked up the phone, confirmed who she was with a nod the caller couldn't see. Then she got the news. Disbelief and shock caused her to stagger. She yelled at Rod to turn the set down again, then turned away and shielded the mouthpiece and her mouth with a hand, as if she could keep the bad news from leaking out. She asked a few questions. Are you sure? When did it...? Was anybody else...? The voice at the other end answered, offered official condolence, gave her a number to write down. She absently drifted as far as the cord would let her from the living room and called her sister Doris. Asked her to take care of letting the rest of the family know. Pause. No, she said, they don't know yet. Pause. I will. Longer pause. Yes, she said, yes, please.
She hung up again. She looked back at the doorway to the living room where our boys didn't know yet. Stood looking at the silent phone. I'm off now, she said, and the TV got louder. Then she sat at the kitchen table and buried her face in her arms. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders and stop them from shaking, but I couldn't. I could only watch as she got control of herself and wiped her face. Then she called to the boys to turn the TV off and come into the kitchen. They tried to argue a little, and she said no, come in now. And because she didn't raise her voice, they were curious and came in, and they looked at her face and said, what's wrong, Mom?
And she told them.
And she said, we're packing some clothes and we're going to visit your aunt and uncle for a couple of days. And I watched them hug each other and cry and try to comfort each other, and I thought, I really had a good family. They picked out some clothes and toys and put them in the big suitcase we used last summer to go to Oregon, and every now and then one of them broke down and the others were there, and they got in the car and set out on the sixty-mile drive to her capable sister's house.
I followed along. It was a pretty quiet procession. Rodney had to go to the bathroom, and they stopped for that. A couple of times, they just pulled off the road so she could cry some more, but for the most part, she kept it together in front of the boys. I watched them and cringed when another car got too close, and asked myself the question. What is the meaning of life?
What had my life meant? What did my life mean to them? What did their lives mean?
I thought back over my life, now conveniently completed. It seemed like my memories were actually clearer than they had been when I was alive. Was I distracted by life when I was experiencing it? Was this a fringe benefit of being dead? Whatever, it was easy to review my twoscore years and five. There was my great-grandpa who died when I was four. I was four, and they were explaining to me. Nineteen, and I'm getting the news about Grandpa Ben. Twenty, and it's Grandma Alice.
I wondered if Doris had called my folks in Florida yet.
I felt close to the meaning. It wasn't things. It wasn't stuff. Ideas? Ideals?
Those things were important, but they weren't the meaning. They were things we had, things we did, to get close to other people. Or maybe keep them away. Were people the meaning? I watched our minivan pull into another rest stop. Elaine went to the vending machines, bought a bottle of cold water, and they set off again, sharing the water. Was sharing the meaning? I noted that Elaine was driving very carefully. Good girl. Might as well learn from my mistake! She had to take care of the family now, this new family that was shaping itself to get along with three. Rod was already starting to move into his niche, taking some of the load off of Elaine. I wanted to hug him.
I sighed. Metaphorically, if not corporeally. I thought I was kind of detached about this death thing, but I realized that I was really regretting it. I had wanted to live a lot longer. That was when it came to me. The meaning of life.
The meaning of life, I said, phrasing it in my mind (as if writing with a number 2 pencil), is to live as long as you can. We surround ourselves with others to form entanglements so that we'll be sure and try to live as long as possible. Life wants life. If we're alone, we might succumb to a momentary impulse or get careless and lose the thread.
We intellectualize it, but it's a flame that wants to burn as long as it possibly can. It's as simple as that. The meaning of life is to live as long as possible. That was my final answer. I stopped following the car and looked up at the clouds and the stars and the moon. That's my answer, I thought. How did I do?
The foreign thought spoke in my brain again. Without words, I now had the impression that this answer had been satisfactory. I had passed the first part of the test.
First part? That was the first part? I looked at the cars below and realized they were starting to look indistinct, as if they were farther away. Not smaller, just harder to see. Words formed in my mind.
What is the meaning of death?