The final exam: What is the most important question human beings must answer? Choose your question wisely, and then examine how Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.
"I hope that poor bastard lives the rest of the school year," the Colonel said as we jogged home through the rain, "because I'm sure starting to enjoy that class. What's your most important question?"
After thirty seconds of running, I was already winded. "What happens... to us... when we die?" (76before.11-13)
Miles is obsessed with last words of famous people, and he also is kind of obsessed with what happens after death. He answers the question by saying that people believe in an afterlife because they can't not believe in one. This gives us a hint about how Miles will cope with the responsibility of Alaska's death and the fact that she is dead.
I found myself thinking about President William McKinley, the third American president to be assassinated. He lived for several days after he was shot, and toward the end, his wife started crying and screaming, "I want to go, too! I want to go, too!" And with his last measure of strength, McKinley turned to her and spoke his last words: "We are all going." (2before.76)
Once Miles learns of the death of Alaska's mom, he ponders the inevitability of death, but he forgets that mortality comes to us all when Alaska dies. So we have a split here—Miles knows that we all die, but he has no idea what death brings in its wake to the living. Poor guy ends up finding out, though.
"The day after my mom took me to the zoo where she liked the monkeys and I liked the bears, it was a Friday. I came home from school. She gave me a hug and told me to go do my homework in my room so I could watch TV later. I went into my room, and she sat down at the kitchen table, I guess, and then she screamed, and I ran out, and she had fallen over. She was lying on the floor, holding her head and jerking. And I freaked out. I should have called 911, but I just started screaming and crying until finally she stopped jerking, and I thought she had fallen asleep and that whatever had hurt didn't hurt anymore. So I just sat there on the floor with her until my dad got home an hour later." (2before.67)
Sleep and death are often symbolically related in literature, and this novel is no exception. Alaska's first experience with death occurred when she was only eight years old, and she's been feeling the weight of guilt and her own mortality ever since. Heavy stuff, both emotionally and psychologically.
"But a lot of times, people die how they live. And so last words tell me a lot about who people were, and why they became the sort of people biographies get written about. Does that make sense?" (thelastday.45)
This is what makes the fact that Miles never knows Alaska's last words so devastating—he believes that last words offer insight into life. He wants to truly know Alaska, and arguably he never really does because of both circumstances and the fact that she doesn't allow it to happen.
The Colonel and I are walking back to our dorm room in silence. I am staring at the ground beneath me. I cannot stop thinking that she is dead, and I cannot stop thinking that she cannot possibly be dead. People do not just die. (thedayafter.42)
But they do, and Miles knows they do. What Miles is experiencing here is what many people who have loved ones die experience: a sense of disbelief that death could touch his life. And Miles realizes this later on—he acknowledges that he and other teenagers are indestructible in his final essay for the Old Man because their spirits live on. So then we have to wonder whether the statement "people do not just die" is true because we question what death really is and means.
I couldn't believe what I had done to him, his eyes glittering green like Alaska's but sunk deep into dark sockets, like a green-eyed, still-breathing ghost, and don't no don't don't die, Alaska. Don't die. (6after.11)
The death Miles is referring to here is physical, yes, but also relates much more to the living than to Alaska. The guilt Miles feels regarding his role in her death would dissipate if only Alaska were alive, and here we see death tied to the suffering of the living.
"I was just thinking—Why do you run head-on into a cop car with its lights on? and then I thought, Well, she hated authority figures."
The Colonel laughed. "Hey, look at that. Pudge made a funny!" (14after.15-16)
One way people cope with death is to approach it with humor because it decreases the power and the pain that death—and suffering—can bring. What about Miles's personality, though, makes the joke he makes a little surprising?
In the beginning, she had haunted me, haunted my dreams, but even now, just weeks later, she was slipping away, falling apart in my memory and everyone else's, dying again. (51after.4)
There's a great deal of truth in Miles's thoughts here. Alaska already physically died, so what exactly is dying now? Will she, or anyone, ever truly die?
And POOF we are through the moment of her death. We are driving through the place that she could not drive through, passing onto asphalt she never saw, and we are not dead. We are not dead! (118after.17)
Miles and the Colonel drive through the scene of Alaska's death and experience the joy and elation of living. It's hard to think that they might experience this contrast, especially thinking about the emotions Alaska might have felt as she died. How does joy relate to mortality?
I was left to ask, Did I help you toward a fate you didn't want, Alaska, or did I just assist in your willful self-destruction? Because they are different crimes, and I didn't know whether to feel angry at her for making me part of her suicide or just to feel angry at myself for letting her go. (118after.1)
Emotions surrounding death and our mortality are complicated, to say the least. Miles wants to clarify his emotions, but they're inherently tied to the responsibility he feels about Alaska's death. The whole thing is an unholy mess… just like it usually is.
Thomas Edison's last words were: "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful. (136after.18)
Miles, like he said in his first essay for the Old Man, believes that a piece of Alaska continues to live on because he can't bear for it not to. What does he mean by he hopes it's beautiful where she is? How does this relate to mortality and suffering, both his and hers?