There was no slideshow of touching, emotional moments and fond memories of my life when I died. No snapshots of what I'd gone through, who I'd met, what I'd done with those few years I had. There weren't even regrets. Maybe it was because I was too young to get that. Maybe I hadn't met enough people yet or done enough things. I was only eleven. So no, my life didn't "flash before my eyes" in the moment when that truck hit our car and my muscles stopped tensing while my life left my body.
Instead, it started with a mix of emotions and impressions; feelings of fear, of regret, of shock, of lightness, of slowness, of quickness, of nausea, of stubbornness, of weightlessness, of prophesy. In that one moment, I saw everything… and nothing. I saw a glaring golden light, like the kind that spills from gilded statues when the sun hits them in just the right way. I saw a stone archway, cold and gray and alone in the middle of a room… my bedroom. The impressions of prophecy faded as I realized where I was. My twin bed with its fluffy green blankets, my soft green carpet, my little nightstand, my bookshelf that had only ever held knick-knacks and little clay sculptures I'd made… now empty, just like the walls were bare. It was my room, but it wasn't. Something was wrong. Something was off. It felt like the floor was slanted, like the whole building had been picked up and turned at a weird angle. I stood in front of the archway, trembling with shock and feeling sick to my stomach, and I let my eyes wander to the very top.
That golden light was still there at that point, warm and gentle on my skin, but my heart was cold… as if it was being held in the icy claws of a creature that would have been more than happy to tear it right out of my chest. I brought my hands quickly up to my chest, as if I could protect myself from what I was seeing. The letters were cold, distant; they froze me from the inside out at the same time the light was trying to warm me from the outside in. I shuddered, scared to keep looking but too paralyzed to look away. Wraith-like and bright and bland, the word hung suspended just above the archway: "FORGOTTEN".
I fell down then, trembling more violently than ever and on the verge of crying. Images started to play in my mind then, images of things that might have happened after I was truly gone. The scene of my mother coming home from my funeral, taking all the pictures of me—of her own daughter—that she could find and throwing them away… letting me fade away from her mind forever… they haunted me as I sat in the same green jeans and dark blue shirt I had woken up in that very morning; suspecting nothing. It wasn't just her, either. My brother studying as an exchange student in Germany, my cousins, my aunts and uncles from across the country, my friends from school, my teachers, my neighbors… those people I walked by every day during my routines who never even got to know me as anything more than another passing face. All of them… letting me fade away, letting me die forever. Forgetting me. I thought about them all casting me aside, my long black hair passing into my peripheral vision as I rocked back and forth with fear.
It was never death itself I had been afraid of, after all. The truck had come quickly, I'd felt almost nothing in the moment it happened—nothing physically, at least—and I'd pretty much known that was how it would go when the end came, but once I was all the way dead? Once they knew I was beyond saving? Would they remember me after that? Would they still care? Or… would I be forgotten? Nonexistent. Never was. Never to be considered again.
The word above the archway… I felt sick at the very sight of it; no word was more terrifying. Not a single one I could think of. The strength in my legs was gone, but fear can motivate you to overcome the greatest of obstacles. I got back up onto my feet, I turned around so I wouldn't have to face that arch and… that word again… and I ran as fast as my lanky little pre-teenager legs could carry me. I ran until I hit the wall where my door leading to the rest of the house should have been. It wasn't there, and the ground was starting to tilt more. No. No! No, no, no, no, no! I was eleven years old! I didn't deserve to be forgotten! I wasn't going through that archway! If I did… if I did… there was just no way I would! I clung to the wall like a toddler clings to her mother's dress, my eyes stinging with tears and my throat aching with words I wished I could have screamed; but I couldn't. Somehow, I couldn't make a sound. I choked on everything I tried to say, drowned in my own protests, and I felt the wrenching pull of gravity around my waist as I was dragged silently and forcefully down into that gray-gold archway that was callously trying to tell me my fate.
When I opened my eyes again after trying to ignore the flat cold and grooved texture of the ground underneath me, my first thought was that I had been pulled into a dungeon—some entry level of hell. Then I heard the man speaking far back in the center of the huge room, his voice echoing off of the walls the way a stage actor's voice echoes in a theater. I looked upwards, pushing myself back into a sitting position, and I started to reconsider my vision of hell. If this was it, then it seemed unexpectedly religious. The man in the far back center of the room was a priest, standing behind a podium with his eyes half-closed so that I couldn't see their color or the emotions behind them and a leather-bound book lying open in front of him. He wasn't just speaking randomly: he was reading from the book.
Amplified by the stone floor and stone walls, somehow underlined by the sparse lighting those few torches in the corner of the huge church-room and the sunlight filtering dust through the one dark red and long un-cleaned stain-glass window behind him provided, given a hollowly ringing feeling of empty importance by the equally empty school-cafeteria-style tables sitting patiently at regular intervals across the room, his words seemed somehow very heavy and very harsh.
"Those who love each other shall forever stay with one another. And so as they love each other in life, they shall love each other after death as well. They shall be so inseparable; bound together by vows of the heart," maybe it was only the monotonous tone he carried in what he said, maybe it was only that I knew he was preaching and felt like I should hold it heavily in my heart… maybe it was just that he was talking about things after death; but something about it felt very difficult to bear.
Another voice mingled with his, more rapid and young and excited. Who could be excited here, of all places? I got up onto my feet yet again and walked slowly to where I thought I could pin-point the source of the sound.
"Oh, yeah, that's right! Do you remember when I asked you out for the first time? Aw, geeze, I was so nervous. I didn't know if I could do it. We were friends and I thought that was gonna make things weird, but… I mean… oh! And do you remember when I took you bike riding through that canyon? Oh, man, that was so much fun… I think that was when I knew I loved you. I mean, more than I already knew. You know how much I love you, right? I've said that, right? Oh, and that reminds me of when I said 'I love you' the first time! Man, we have so many memories… like that time…" I let myself tune him out the closer I got to him, noticing that this one table, hidden among so many other tables on the left side of this vast room, was the only one that was actually occupied. The boy sat on one side, wearing a light blue shirt with a pink heart on its chest while he talked enthusiastically about the times he and his girlfriend had been through before they died. The girl sat across from him, wearing a soft pink shirt with a light blue heart up on its chest; looking bored and regretful. For some reason, I couldn't stop myself from thinking that there was something vaguely… cartoon-ish about both of them. There was something about them that made them seem silly, but in a rather serious way. It was… strange.
The boy had no idea I'd walked up beside his table, but the girl noticed within moments. She turned to me and sighed, "I never really loved him, but I never had the heart to tell him. So… here I am." I stood there for a moment, watching the two of them.
"I don't think that's true," I blurted out, again unable to stop myself. The girl raised her eyebrows at me, asking if I was just that naïve.
"Why not?" she asked, with skepticism and anger and paranoia deeply infused in her voice and tone.
"Because…" I thought about it, watching her boyfriend keep on talking as if it didn't even matter whether he had an audience or not. She never loved him. She had been his friend, he had tried not to make things weird, and… they had become weird anyway? No, that wasn't quite it. She just… didn't love him. She didn't care about him. And yet… and yet… "you're here now, aren't you?"
The priest stopped a moment in his preaching, pausing to look at me just as the girl did, then began again, "Those who have courage shall have courage forever. For no part of the self is lost in the death of the self. Those who are brilliant shall be brilliant forever. Those who are free shall be free forever. For no part of the self is lost in the death of the self." I nodded quietly, leaving the girl before she had a chance to speak to me again. I walked away slowly, languidly, peacefully towards some place in the walls of the church that seemed to call to me.
I stepped through softly, almost swimming through the golden light that was still warming my room. It felt, somehow, right; and suddenly, I was very tired. I yawned past the smile on my face. Maybe she didn't love him, but she cared about him. She remembered him. She stayed together with him… because she wanted him to know how she felt. She wanted him to know he wouldn't be forgotten. I crawled lazily into my bed, stretching like a cat getting ready for a nap. I pulled the blankets over myself and closed my eyes, letting my body relax. The letters above the archway had changed, but I didn't particularly care what they said. I… I would not be forgotten. For no part of the self is lost in the death of the self…