This piece is excerpted from We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
“What do you think happens after you die?” she says. “Oh!” I say. “Gosh.”
I was raised in a fully atheist household, so not much is the short answer. “Just toss me in the dumpster when I go!” my dad likes to announce, and when I’m like, “Um, Dad, I think funerals are actually more about—” he interrupts me. “In the dumpster!” “Okay!” I say. “The dumpster it is!”
When the girls were little, they were confused about whether people believed that heaven existed in the sky—like, the earth’s sky. This was legitimately confusing, actually. “Is it heaven just for this planet or for the whole universe?” they’d wondered. “I guess the whole universe?” I said, and they countered with many picky questions about clouds, pearly gates, angels sitting around in the blue, no dark matter in sight, and I realized that everything I knew had probably come from a Gary Larson comic. Or maybe an episode of Looney Tunes.
“I believe there’s some kind of energy,” I say now. I am winging it! “Something that’s not exactly you? But that’s, like, not not you.” Edi nods politely. “Like, it’s halfway between people’s memories of you and something that’s more like a material fact.” This I might actually believe. “Some kind of animate stardust.” What? “Maybe you turn into a kind of free-floating consciousness that surrounds the people you love so that you’re kind of there with them still and the air they breathe is somehow made out of you.” Edi smiles—she’s probably picturing all of us coughing and wheezing out a lungful of her consciousness. I’m such an asshole. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I can hear that I’m not making any sense. I guess I’m not sure what I think—besides that the people we lose stay with us somehow. What do you think?”
“I really don’t know,” she says. “I feel like you just described more about your experience after I die than mine. Will I be somewhere? With my own sense of myself?” I don’t know—I hope so. “It’s so frustrating that I’m stuck in this stupid, sick body,” she says. “It seems so inessential, somehow, but then, there’s really nowhere else for me to go.” I picture unzipping my own body and wrapping her inside of it, like a shared coat.
“I would give anything to keep you,” I say through the sob that’s gathering in my throat, and she says, “I know you would. I would give anything to stay.”
“Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,” I sing to her, and she closes her eyes, smiles.
“Mostly,” she says, “I’m just really, really thirsty.” The body and its petty demands! Grief is crashing over our heads like a tsunami, this miraculous soul is about to be homeless, but thirst is thirst. So I fill her night—this one, beautiful night, the only here and now we’ve ever got—with Sprite.
From the book: WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS by Catherine Newman. Copyright © 2022 by Catherine Newman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Catherine Newman ’90 is the author of the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night, the kids’ craft book Stitch Camp, the best-selling how-to books for kids How to Be a Person and What Can I Say? and the new indie bestseller novel We All Want Impossible Things. She edits the non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop, wrote the etiquette column for Real Simple magazine for 10 years, and has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parents magazine, Cup of Jo, and many other publications. She is the Academic Department Coordinator of the Creative Writing Center at Amherst College.