As a kindergartner, I knew about gaming the system. The Reflections contest theme that year for elementary school kids was “If I could give the world a gift, I would give it…” and I drew a picture of a bunch of people encircling the globe and wrote “love!” in big bubbly red letters with hearts. When I won first place I announced it proudly, followed immediately by “I knew that would get ’em!” I was a wily, if not exactly endearing, five-year-old.
By the time I was applying for college, though, most of the craftiness had bled out of me, sapped away by adolescence and a waning desire to broadcast myself as anyone other than who I was. Being a teenager sucked, and I wanted out: to be as far from the place and people I knew as possible. So Princeton was one of my reach schools, and their essay topic was to list your favorite song and why it held that spot in your heart. This was the song I picked.
The school I got into instead had a much more conventional prompt, and I was able to write both seriously and humorously in response — so maybe earnestness was the wrong tack here. Or maybe, to write in for a song whose words were rendered essentially just sounds to you, they expected that you’d better then be able to talk shop about the song’s technical prowess. More likely still, a Hollywood blockbuster like Gladiator earned disdainful sniffs all around the admissions table. Who knows? The people of my age group I met later who went to Princeton came away with some pretty terrible prejudices, so it’s probably for the best that I didn’t get in.
But Now We Are Free, composed by Hans Zimmer and sung in pseudo-Armenian by Lisa Gerard, was and remains dear to me. I bought it immediately after my parents and I — not my sister, who’d abandoned the family movie outing in what I correctly assessed to the the first of many such abandonments — saw Gladiator in theaters. We always used to go to Tower Records after a movie, to grab the soundtrack. I skipped immediately to its track on my CD player (still technically branded a Walkman, I believe) and listened to it as thunder raged outside our van on the way home. I went all the way to the back, on the bench seat, and lay down listening, to see the rain streak the window from the lower-down angle that I remembered from roadtrips in our old station wagon. But from my position tipped over sideways on the bench, my parents’ headrests rose further than their heads, and it looked to me like they weren’t even there anymore. (When I was four, I kept dreaming they disappeared from the front of the car as we drove to the Smithsonian, and I never saw them again. I’d wake up yelling.) And I found myself crying. I thought of Lucilla’s love and how it didn’t really matter anymore; Maxmius had made a home and it had been taken from him. And I thought — his parents weren’t there — how miserable, to have carved your mom and dad out of what your image of home and love should be, in an afterlife. How lonely I’d be if it was just me wandering through the fields of Elysium, parents gone and relegated to their own versions of paradise, which wouldn’t include me. How, surely — keep in mind I was thirteen, and a late-bloomer to boot; I wanted nothing to do with relationships — no one would ever populate my empty Elysium, if you didn’t even get to keep your parents.
Unless, I thought, as my dad slammed on the breaks and my mom yelled at him — the storm knocked out the stoplights and someone almost hit us as we tried to go through an intersection — you died young. Maximus’s son got to be with him, after all. He got to “count” as worth seeing, after death.
What a raw deal.
Culture gives us these ways to talk about people who are dead — the afterlife, heaven, hell, fields of Elysium, take your pick — but no one prepares you, as a thirteen year old, to be in a constant state of losing someone. For years. They are still alive in that you can look into their eyes, but those eyes don’t know you anymore. Or themselves.
This, too, is rather a raw deal.
Mom, you are welcome to my little plot of the Elysian Fields anytime, when you get there. It won’t be empty, but you’re still invited.