I was driving by the local middle school the other day, when I noticed a group of students huddling around the platform of the school flagpole, lighting candles, pasting handmade cards, arranging flowers in vases. I pulled up, wondering if a child who had recently been in an accident had passed away.
My worst fears were confirmed however, when, later in the day, e-mail arrived from the school list-serve, announcing that an eighth grader—an Asian-American boy—had committed suicide.
Was this becoming a June ritual, I wondered, along with graduations, prom parties, and summer barbecues?
For, at exactly the same time last year, another Asian American, a ninth-grade girl, committed suicide in our little town of Albany. The news of that suicide was accompanied by a gut-wrenching e-mail from the father, a Caucasian American, who regretted not spending enough time with his daughter, who wanted to warn other parents of suicide cults, who mourned the passing of his young daughter.
On both occasions, I wondered about the root cause: Did the children succumb to academic pressures? Did they feel unpopular? Was the girl sad because her parents were not together anymore?
So I decided to talk about the latest suicide with my son. I wanted to reassure him that if he ever became depressed, counseling, not suicide, was the solution.
But our talk didn’t quite go as I had planned.
Somehow, I casually happened to mention that time was passing so very quickly. Ironically, my 15-year-old son astutely connected time with death.
“I am not really worried about death, Mom,” he said, startling me.
I wondered then if I had done the right thing in bringing up the subject of suicide.
As we drove down the street, my son said a few minutes later, “Mom, don’t worry about the passing of time, okay?”
He continued to talk about death, asking me how one felt after death, whether it was just like sleep, if there was any life afterwards.
I became somber.
Ever since my father’s death three years ago, I have felt the transience of life in every waking moment. Everything we do—our little joys and sorrows, pleasures and traumas, successes and failures—I feel, are just passing fancies, illusion, maya, if you will. These are the things we fill time with, which flows endlessly regardless, bringing us closer and closer to that inevitable conclusion when everything will pale, when all the trivial travails of our mundane lives will seem inconsequential, making us wonder why we bothered to waste the one thing we had so little of—time.
As I was driving down our road with my son, therefore, I suddenly saw a vision of a day when I will be old and saying goodbye to him. I visualized a day, hopefully a long time in the making, when he too will be saying goodbye to his children.
Perhaps it was because I was so closely bonded with my father that his death has brought me so much closer to my own death as well as the deaths of everyone around me.
As if reading my thoughts, my son said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I have a long life to live yet, right?”
I realized then that perhaps children think about death more than we realize. That perhaps to them it is a dark tunnel through which they must one day pass.
Perhaps they fear it more than anything. It is probably at once a frightening and an attractive thing to them.
Could it be that the children in our community had resorted to killing themselves out of sheer curiosity, to discover what was at the end of the journey?
Every day as I walked past schoolchildren hovering around the makeshift memorial, lighting new candles, arranging dried flowers, lingering, as if unable to let go, I realized that they were intrigued by death.
I wondered then if I had done the right thing in not imbibing in my children any excessive sense of religion or spirituality. I wondered if I should have taken them regularly to the temple or church or ashram.
So I told my son about the theory of reincarnation and how this was the way some people coped with the concept of death.
The next day, the one thought I woke up with was, why am I spending my precious time tied to a computer in a cubicle, performing bureaucratic claptrap, serving egos of people who live purely for the pleasure of lording over others?
And I hoped that the suicides in our community had served a useful purpose of reminding our children that life is precious and transitory and should be enjoyed to the hilt; that achievement, be it academic or personal, is only a means to that end; that happiness comes from the smallest things like bird-watching or hiking or reading or going to a movie or talking to one another.
I realized that if we can’t stop the passage of time, we should at least not whittle it away.
After all, as Albert Einstein said, “I don’t worry about the future; it is here soon enough.” The great mind that had discovered the fourth dimension surely knew a thing or two about time.
So I have resolved to live by the great scientist’s words.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.