Spoiler alert: Harry doesn’t die. He probably should, but he doesn’t, and there’s not really much we can do about it. The day the seventh book came out, my friend and I sat in the bathroom of our bunk at camp and read the entire thing. While it makes a great humble brag, we didn’t do it to show off. Three summers before, the day after the sixth book came out, an older camper stood up at breakfast and told the entire dining hall that Dumbledore dies. Spoiler alert: Dumbledore dies.
I was fortunate enough not to be in the dining hall when it happened, but my fortune was short-lived since some attention-seeking, dream-killing fellow camper decided to tell me about it during instructional swim. I cried. I told my counselor the book had been ruined for me. The series had been ruined for me. The memories I had of my mother reading me the second book in my grandmother’s backyard were ruined. I was ruined. He told me it was OK and, when that didn’t work, pretended it had been a lie. Finally, he told me that maybe I could still get something out of the book, but either way I should stop crying and go back to swimming.
Reluctantly, I went back to reading, but I read slowly, miserable that the suspense had been ruined and silently mourning Dumbledore’s every word, wondering whether it would be his last. We would all read on the porch, and for every day I slogged through the book, another bunkmate would inevitably reach page five-hundred and ninety-six, watch Dumbledore tumble from the tower, limbs splayed like a starfish but somehow still graceful, cover his ears, and yell, “No!” I felt like a tortured prophet: doomed to foreknowledge of Dumbledore’s death, and doomed to watch it replayed across every unsuspecting face (at least of those who hadn’t been at that fateful breakfast).
As many things do, my sluggish trek through sixth book came to a tepid close. Long after everyone else had moved on from Dumbledore’s tragic end, I saw Snape point his wand at him at the top of the Astronomy tower. I saw the green light slam into Dumbledore’s chest and thrust him into the air like a baby bird. I mourned briefly and intensely (though not quite as intensely as the girl in my class who wore black for four months after finishing the book).
Three years later, sitting on a lawn chair in my bunk’s bathroom, I finished the epilogue of the seventh book and though no one all that important had died (sorry Fred and Lupin), I felt the particularly lonely sense I get when I finish a book series. There is something strange in imagining that the characters in the story will go on living without you and not care much about it. I don’t think that we mourn most for the characters who have died: Dumbledore lived an inspiring and entertaining life, but it’s over. We know that we won’t miss him dueling another dark wizard or quietly eating his dinner. We can let him go. We miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione the most, if only because we know we won’t see them walking around the park, or huddled around a table at the far end of the bar, slightly pudgier than before, knocking back shots as if Voldemort had died all over again.
This fictional FOMO is a feeling mirrored by the way many fantasy series end, when the main character realizes he must travel to a faraway land. We imagine his friends, heartbroken by the beach as he sails away, and then later, the dull numbness they remember every now and then. We think about Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and how he stares at Frodo’s ship long after it has crossed the horizon, and then about his long walk back to his home, the paths through the Shire seeming smaller than before. Perhaps it would have been easier for him if Frodo had died on Mount Doom. He could have cried, he could have mourned, and he could have moved on. This way, Frodo could pass away tomorrow or in a year and Sam would have no idea. Frodo is Samwise’s version of Schrodinger’s cat (this is probably not a metaphor that would occur to Samwise), alive and dead and everything in between.
Then again, maybe there is a special comfort this way. No matter how old Samwise gets, he can believe that Frodo is somewhere with the elves in the Undying Lands, bearded and graying, maybe, but happy. Perhaps he whispers to him before he goes to sleep, just quietly enough so that his wife cannot hear. Perhaps this is how we feel about Harry. We know that once we turn the 4,224th page, he will be somewhere else, but we also know that no matter how many times we do, no matter how old we imagine him to be, some part of him will still be alive.
Sitting in that bathroom at five in the morning, knowing I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep but that I also had a long day of Jewish summer camp ahead of me, I probably couldn’t have explained what about finishing Harry Potter made me saddest. There was something surreal about sitting in the fluorescent lighting with the half-dark of sunrise not quite gone, everyone snoring and some bugs making bug noises, and knowing that in some small way I had gotten older. Not the kind of older you are excited or upset about, but the older you don’t really know what to do with. The older of not having sat in your mother’s lap in years but realizing for the first time in awhile that you never will again. The kind of older that is mostly gone once everyone wakes up and you head to breakfast, but that you hold onto for a few hours until you forget how it started. Mostly the kind of older that makes you want to talk to your eleven year-old self, not to tell him to do anything differently but just to listen to what he sounds like.
Every now and then, I wonder if it would be miserable to be stuck in your younger self’s body with all of your present knowledge. Probably. But when I am rereading Harry Potter late at night back at my mother’s house and cannot sleep, there is something comforting in knowing how things will go. It is not because they will work out, but because Dumbledore’s words loom larger when you know that in a few years Harry will watch him be flung from the top of a tower, and because Harry’s first kiss with Ginny seems softer knowing that he will leave her and Hogwarts in two months to seek out Voldemort one last time. Each moment is perfectly tinged with the weight of the things that will undo it. We stand on the shore and watch Harry and our younger selves sail as far as we can see and then keep sailing. They are out there. We tell stories about them, and remember them in whatever way we want but above all, we tell ourselves that they are not lost, and that they are wandering some place we will never reach. We whisper to them in the dimness just before sunrise. We think of all the things that they will do that will unravel themselves. That kind of older.