Nine-year-old Ariel practically knocked the screen door off its hinges as she raced into the house screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”

Lauren, quite used to Hurricane Ariel, just laughed and asked, “What is it this time, honey?”

Ariel bellowed, “Today in school, when my friend Harrison asked our teacher Miss Jenkins what a grandma is, her face got red as a tomato and she yelled, ‘Go home and ask your mother, and don’t ever ask that question again!’ I never saw my teacher get angry before; it was really scary. So, Mommy, what is a grandma?”

Lauren’s face fell. Although she knew this day was coming, she was woefully unprepared. Lauren felt the hot acid begin to bubble up in her throat as she contemplated the repercussions of Ariel’s question. Was today going to be the day she stole away the innocence of her only daughter? Once she opened this Pandora’s box, she could never close it again, and her baby girl would be changed forever, just like she was when she was nine. Lauren wrestled with this gut-wrenching decision, her breath coming in gulps, until finally, her heart as heavy as a boulder, she wrapped her daughter in a bear hug and said, “Ariel, you are a big girl now, and I think you are ready for the Truth.”

Lauren took Ariel into the kitchen and prepared some hot chocolate and cookies for the two of them. Ariel was giddy; she hardly ever got junk food, and she never saw her mother eat junk food. She never saw any grown-up eat junk food. All grown-ups ever seemed to talk about was which vitamins to take and new ways of staying healthy.

Sitting together at the kitchen table, blowing on their hot chocolate, Lauren became lost in her thoughts, hypnotized by the swirling steam rising from her cup, recalling the day she had this same talk with her mother. The day her panic disorder was born.

Ariel, looked over at her dazed mother and cried, “Mommy, what is it already?”

Jolted back to reality, Lauren gazed at her daughter as she dunked her cookie into her hot chocolate, smacking her lips in delight; completely oblivious to the serious turn this conversation would take. As Lauren readied herself for this task, she sat up straight, plastered a fake smile on her face, and said, “Ariel, what I am about to tell you is an important part of our history, but you must promise not to tell your friends.” They shook hands on it, and Lauren began, “Ariel, in the year 2020, a great virus swept through the earth. It was the most contagious virus man has ever known, and infected people in every single country. It was awful! Each and every person over the age of 80 died. We did not have any medicines or vaccines for this infection and were completely at its mercy.”

Ariel was stunned. She said, “Mommy, people used to live to be in their eighties? That’s crazy.” As she spoke, she knocked over her entire cup of hot chocolate, splashing the hot liquid all over her new shirt, the table, and the floor.

Tears came to Ariel’s eyes, but Lauren said, “Don’t worry, honey, that’s what washboards and mops are for.”

Lauren grabbed a mop and a bucket of water as she passed some towels to Ariel. As they cleaned up the mess together, Lauren said, “Honey, believe it or not, some people even lived to be over 100. But to continue the story, the virus mutated, and mutated again, eventually killing off all people over 50, and within a year of the first reported case, every single person in the world was infected. It embedded itself into the very fabric of our DNA, and what that means Ariel, is that now even babies are born with the virus. Do you understand what I mean by DNA?”

“Of course, Mommy, I am in third grade; I know I have blonde hair because you have blonde hair.”

“Yes, and Grandma had blonde hair, too. So, let’s answer your question, the one that started this whole conversation. A grandma is your mommy’s mother and your daddy’s mother, and a grandpa is your mommy’s father and your daddy’s father. Do you understand?”

Ariel perked up. “Of course! You’re saying I have two grandmas and two grandpas? Where are they? When can I see them?”

Lauren’s eyes filled with tears as she answered, “I am so sorry, honey, but all four of your grandparents have died. People don’t live long enough to become grandparents anymore. Just as a person’s hair begins to turn gray, the virus begins to exert its effects.”

Ariel was confused, “You mean a person’s hair turns a different color?”

“Yes, honey, it does, or at least it did. I know this is going to sound scary, but first I want you to understand, it doesn’t hurt. To put it simply, the virus is a brain eater: it slowly consumes a person’s brain until there is nothing left. At first, people begin seeing things out of the corner of their eye, but then, little by little, they develop hallucinations which progress until, eventually, people can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t.”

Ariel changed out of her wet shirt as she pondered all her mother had said. It was a lot to take in, and she still had so many questions. “Mommy,” she asked, “What happens to people when they start seeing things?”

Lauren began forcefully scrubbing Ariel’s shirt against the washboard, taking out all her anger and frustration on the block of wood, as she answered Ariel’s question. “Well, Ariel, I am proud to say that we take very good care of our elders. As soon as people have their first vision, they move into a special home called Hospice Haven. It’s a friendly place, people like it. When they first arrive, they work and take care of others, and we can visit them all we want, but as they deteriorate, the visits stop, and they no longer have any responsibilities. The thing to remember is that every single person is treated with kindness and compassion because we are all in this together, so we take great care of each other.”

The sun was warm on their faces as mother and daughter went outside to hang Ariel’s shirt on the clothesline. It was Lauren’s favorite time of year; the vegetable garden had been planted and the tiny buds, green and full of promise, were just peeping above the surface. It usually brought happiness to Lauren’s heart, but today, it brought only sadness as Lauren recalled the budding terror in her mother’s eyes the day she had her first vision. Lauren was only 18, and she was not ready to say goodbye to her mother. But as sad as Lauren felt today, she was also happy; she could finally share memories of her beloved mother with Ariel.

Lauren went back into the house and brought out some old photo albums, and for the next three hours, mother and daughter laughed and cried as they looked at pictures of all of Ariel’s grandparents, each one having written a special letter for the grandchild they would never know. Afterwards, Lauren gave Ariel a book that her grandmother had written called Grandma Loves You from Above. Although Ariel was old enough to read it herself, Lauren scooped her up into her lap and read it to her, and together they mourned a life that they would never have.

As Lauren tucked her daughter into bed that evening, Ariel checked her mother’s hair for grays for the first of what would be many times, and asked the question that Lauren had been dreading: “Mommy, will you and Daddy go to hospice too?”

Lauren gently told her, “Yes, Ariel, but I promise, Daddy and I will make sure you are ready. And Ariel, I want you know that you won’t be going through this alone. Remember, Match Day happens when you turn 19, just like you learned in school. It is the day you will be matched with your husband and the two of you will get married. Just like me and daddy did. It will be one of the happiest days of your life.” Lauren hoped her lie was convincing because she knew it was important for Ariel to have something special to look forward to.

Ariel felt a world of sadness fill her up as she began crying, “Mommy, what am I going to do without you? Why did this terrible virus have to happen?”

Lauren looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Don’t you see, Ariel: this virus is a gift. It taught us to slow down, respect the Earth, and return to a simple way of living. We took a wonderful step backwards, and now instead of destroying the Earth, we are preserving it. No more climate change, no more pollution, and when we look at the night sky, we can see thousands of stars twinkling their thanks to us. Isn’t that great? Our planet has been restored.

“But the best part is, because we know our time on Earth is limited, we understand how precious life is. We never forget to tell the people we love how much we love them, and we don’t get mad at each other for silly things like spilling hot chocolate. So, Ariel, while some things about the virus are sad, the world is a much happier place because of it.” And even as the words were coming out of Lauren’s mouth, she was still trying to convince herself.