I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line. I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me. Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun. I felt tired. I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep. I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory. Nearly drowning.
For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me. I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief. My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six. Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school. At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward. Funerals did not make me sad. I was fine.
Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild. I developed nighttime anxiety. I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks. I was convinced that I was going to be murdered. Any sound in the house startled me. I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself. I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up. I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed. I also developed a fear of flying. I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me. Sometime in my teenage years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death. I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them. I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.
My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive. For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions. I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid? I lived in a safe area. We had never had a break-in. I had never so much as been in a bad car accident. Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?
Two weeks ago, my grandfather died. He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while. I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family. However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion. Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that. Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death. I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality. And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?
I am still learning to hold these things together. I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can. If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret. I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control. I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love. So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.