After his four-year-old daughter asked, “Where do people go when they die?” Chris Hunt was at a loss—until he found the answer in, of all things, a children’s poem.
My wife’s friend was 37 years old when she died suddenly of heart failure in New York. We were away on vacation when we heard the news. My wife cried as she spoke to her friend’s husband on the phone. Our four-year-old daughter watched anxiously; she had rarely seen her mother cry, and she had never known anyone who had died. It was August 31, 2001.
I was walking home in Brooklyn after an early-morning run when a man on the street said an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the time I got home, the second plane had hit the South Tower. In our desperation for news about the terrorist attacks, my wife and I kept the TV on all morning. We didn’t stop to think how images of the burning and collapsing skyscrapers and the ash-covered survivors might affect a four-year-old. My daughter asked me to play blocks with her, but I was too busy watching the coverage and calling relatives.
In the early afternoon, we went out to donate blood for the survivors. I pushed our daughter in her stroller. We stopped at a church to pray for the victims and then headed toward the hospital. As we walked past a store, something fell off a second-story ledge and under the stroller. I stopped and pulled the stroller back, and a small pigeon darted away on the sidewalk, unable to fly. One of its wings was bent, evidently broken by the stroller’s wheels. Feeling responsible, I ran after the bird, chasing it down the sidewalk and into the street, but it was too quick and moved too erratically for me to catch it.
As cars screeched to a halt around me, a man swooped in from nowhere, crouching low, his arms spread wide. He scooped up the pigeon and gave it to me. He was a Dickensian apparition, tall and thin and wearing an overcoat in the heat of the day. He showed me how to hold the bird: one hand beneath, securing its legs between two fingers, and the other above, gently holding down the wings. Then he turned into the crowd that had gathered and vanished.
My wife took the stroller, and we began walking again. The pigeon lay between my palms without resisting. We passed the hospital, where there were so many blood donors that they were being turned away, and continued a few blocks to an animal clinic. There a veterinarian examined the pigeon, confirmed that its wing was broken, and asked if we would be willing to nurse it back to health. We said we would. But as the vet held the little bird in his hands, under my daughter’s silent, steady gaze, the pigeon slowly closed its eyes and died.
The next day, September 12, my daughter had a birthday party to attend. It was a princess party. She had always loved wearing costumes. Some nights when we all went out for dinner, she would ask my wife and me to wait while she put on her full Dorothy Gale outfit, down to the ruby slippers. One night the walk home took us through a gay-pride parade. Soon we heard shouts of “It’s Dorothy!” and she was drawn in to dance among the paraders.
In our desperation for news about the terrorist attacks, my wife and I kept the TV on all morning. We didn’t stop to think how images of the burning and collapsing skyscrapers and the ash-covered survivors might affect a four-year-old.
For the princess party, she was dressed from head to toe as Snow White. On the street, grieving acquaintances and strangers were stopping one another to share news and stories about the terrible day before. Bouquets of flowers were piling up in front of the local firehouse, which had lost 12 men in the towers. The people we passed were somber until they noticed the little girl in the red hair ribbon and blue blouse and long yellow skirt. Then they broke into smiles and admired my daughter’s costume and thanked her for brightening their day. She beamed with pride.
Over the next few weeks, my daughter asked me questions about death. The first time, we were walking downstairs to her bedroom. We stopped and sat on a stair and talked about Mommy’s friend, the pigeon, and the people who died in the towers. The second time, we happened to be in the same spot, halfway down the stairs, and we sat down again. She asked me where people go when they die.
A therapist had told me to answer my daughter’s questions honestly but not to volunteer any unsolicited information. Don’t elaborate, don’t over-explain, he said. Just answer the question in its simplest form. That’s all she wants.
“I don’t know where they go,” I said.
“What does Mommy think?” she asked.
“Mommy thinks people go to a nice place to think about what they want to do in their next life, and then they come back and live again,” I said.
“I like that,” she said.
The people we passed on our way to the subway were somber until they noticed the little girl dressed from head to toe as Snow White. Then they broke into smiles.
That evening, I phoned my mother, a retired grade-school principal and a doting grandmother. I told her about the conversations on the staircase. She said, “There’s a poem about that!”
It’s a short, sweet poem by A. A. Milne called “Halfway Down.” In it, a child talks about the stair where he likes to sit, a place where “all sorts of funny thoughts / Run round my head.”
I found the poem in Milne’s collection When We Were Very Young and read it to my daughter. She liked it and memorized it, and sometimes we would recite it together.
For a while, she continued to ask questions about death: Will she die? Will my wife and I die? Does anyone live forever? If we were in some other part of the apartment, I would say, “Do you want to have a ”halfway“” and she would say yes, and we would go to that spot where she felt safe talking about her fears. Then one day she said no, we could stay where we were, and soon after that the questions stopped.
My wife’s friend was buried on September 7, in her hometown, in Brazil. Her husband took her body there from New York, and when the U.S. airports closed after 9/11, he was stranded for a few days. Brazilian reporters interviewed him, and one night he appeared on the evening news, a mourning American answering questions on behalf of his stricken country.
After he returned to New York, we went to visit him. There were many photos of his wife in the apartment. In one big, framed print, she stood alone at the Grand Canyon. The last time we had been at the apartment was shortly before her death. She had played with our daughter much of the evening.
Looking at one of the photos, my daughter quietly asked, “Is that the lady who died?”
Keep it simple. If she wants to know more, she’ll ask.
“Yes,” I said.
Our daughter is 19 now, happy and confident and good-hearted, an opera singer at a music conservatory. Recently, wondering if 9/11 had scarred her, I asked her what she remembered about that day. She kept it simple. “I remember that I wanted to play,” she said. “And you just wanted to watch TV.”
Chris Hunt, a special contributor to Sports Illustrated, is a former assistant managing editor of that magazine and a former executive editor of Travel & Leisure. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn.