Death and Deep Time at the Water Park

Aaron Gilbreath

On vacation in Sunriver, Oregon, my wife and our five-year-old daughter and I floated the lazy river at the water park. The artificial current moved inner tubers in a circular stream. Our daughter thought it looked boring. “Why does it go in a circle?” she asked. The circle is what makes it fun, my wife and I explained. The cycles relax you, letting you absorb the scenery, and you can talk and tickle each other. When our daughter acquiesced, we sat her on the side of our blue tube and she enjoyed dangling her legs in the water.

Her new life vest has made her confident, paddling the pool without holding our hands. She’s also conscious of the dangers. “You keep your face above water,” she said, “and hold your nose if you fall under.” She’s become keenly aware of death.

By the time she was three, her grandfather, auntie, and dog had all died. She started asking why older people got sick, and whether our dog was coming back. Then she connected that to herself. One spring morning while looking at pictures of her great-grandmother holding her as a baby, she asked where great-grandma was. My wife explained that she’d died because she was old. Our daughter asked. “How did she get old?” Everyone gets old, we said. “Am I going to get old?” she asked, nuzzling her mother’s chest. “Am I going to die?” Everybody dies eventually, we said.

The questions became more pointed. What happens when we die? What do emotions look like? Who’s at the rainbow bridge? With time she no longer recognized my father or her auntie in photos, and we traded the rainbow bridge for biological truth: We don’t know what happens exactly, but dying is part of what The Lion King calls “the circle of life.” We are animals like Simba and Nala. When we passed a local cemetery, I told her it was like a park where buried bodies fed the trees and became part of the flowers. We walked through it to see how beautiful it was.

As her preschool prepared students for kindergarten, she told me, “I want to stay here forever. I like it here. I love my teachers and they love me.”  

It’s remarkable and sad to watch your kid reckon with time, how schools and vacations start and end, just like our lives. Asking how old my wife and I were seemed benign, but she was gauging how much time we all had left together. Everywhere she looked, she found signs of aging: outgrown shoes, outgrown Frozen dolls, outgrown preschool. Time became a train she couldn’t get off. She’d been excited for winter to turn to summer so she could celebrate her birthday, but she didn’t want to grow into a kindergartener—definitely not into a grownup. “I don’t ever wanna move out dad,” she told me. “I want to live with you forever.” With the years came letters and numbers, the timing and tension of jokes. Later, a vocabulary through which to approach feelings and the difficult concepts they clustered around. It amazed me. It crushed me. To become resilient, she had to struggle. To appreciate life, she had to truly see it.

On the day before her fifth birthday, she told me, “I want to be four again. Will I be able to play troll under the bridge and still fit under your legs when I turn five?” Yes, I said, definitely. She stared at me. “Where does four go?” Taking a breath, I explained that time is this invisible thing that we measure with numbers to understand how things change. But an age isn’t something you hold in your hand like the moths we catch. It’s an idea, like your excellent questions. She nodded. Her question was also about where our lives go. Where does our childhood go as time marches forward? Where do our happiest days end up? Resigning ourselves to the void is one of the hardest things we do as people.

At our Sunriver rental house, she watched an animated short called Lava, where two volcanoes fall in love in the ocean. In the lazy river, she and I sang the Lava song together: “You’re here with me, and I’m here with you.” Looking down at me in the tube, smiling, she asked, “Dad, how old will you be when I’m six?” I told her: 48. “And how old will you be when I’m a grownup?” Hmm, I said, in my 60s, I think. I didn’t want to scare her, because who knows how much longer we can just enjoy each other’s company like this? It’s not like the lazy river, where we choose to get on and off.

On the drive from Portland, we’d passed two volcanoes, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, and spotted Mt. Bachelor from Sunriver.In the tube she said, “Mt. St. Helens blew its top to tell another volcano it loves it. It loves Mt. Hood. And Mt. Bachelor loves Mt. Jefferson. You’re Mt. Jefferson, and I’m Bachelor.” And for now, I thought, peering into the coming bend, we’re here together.

Aaron Gilbreath’s essays and reporting have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Adventure Journal, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, has been nominated for a James Beard Award, and been named notable in Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Sports Writing. His third book, The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley, was a finalist for the 2022 Oregon Book Award. He runs the Alive in the Nineties music series in Substack.