I really did plan to write a cheerful holiday post today. I put the order in and sat poised at the keyboard, ready for inspiration. Instead, here is what came out: that time I thought I might die. Proceed with caution if this isn’t your bag 🙂
When I was a kid, I loved being afraid.
Grocery shopping with my mother, I would be drawn by a force I didn’t understand, to the far end of the meat section, where they stocked the chicken and pigs feet, frog legs, fish heads and tongue, all stamped with bright orange stickers, “Low low price!” I’d creep toward the display and stare at it, shivering.
It was brutal, scary, and weirdly soothing.
I learned then that if I could look long enough at the white belly, the bone, the hoof, my fear would eventually turn to curiosity. By the time I heard Mama calling me, the parts had lost their grisly pull, and although I never wished to see them on my plate, I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, at least until the next time we went shopping, when once again I would wander from the kid-friendly entertainment of the cereal aisle, into the place where nice girls didn’t go.
I remember creating haunted houses in the sweltering attic of our small house, hanging my dolls, bloodied with magic marker, from the ceiling, and arranging bowls of spaghetti brains, broken mirrors, and rubber knives in creepy tableaus.
As I got older, I added to the scene, with death threats scrawled on paper that I carefully burned around the edges, and descriptions like this, next to each installation: “This very baby carriage and it’s human contents was crushed by the axe of a madman!”
It was a little intense for the other grade schoolers in my neighborhood, so usually it was pretty much just me up there, hanging out on summer afternoons, hot as hell and perfectly at home in the dark.
My friend Risa told me that the fact that I wasn’t afraid of the dark was proof that I was The Devil. We were living in the Bible belt, so this was a pretty big deal. After I got over that first rush, similar to getting cast as the lead in the school play, I admit it gave me pause.
I had good reason to think she might be on the right track in her assessment of my character, but in the end I was way too insecure to think I could be the Anti-Christ himself. For one thing, I was having a heck of a time memorizing my multiplication tables, proof, in my own mind, that I would never be tapped for such an important gig.
By fifth grade, I was an avid reader of horror comic books. After comics came ghost stories like The Bell Witch. Later, while my friends were reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I read Amityville Horror and Helter Skelter.
I was the kid who was always looking up leprosy in The World Book Encyclopedia, or holding a seance.
My idea of fun was slipping into fear like a pair of comfy slippers and walking around for a while. There were a lot of demons inhabiting my world. For some of us, feeling scared helps us, well, not be so scared.
Once I grew up, my world felt a lot safer, and I mostly seemed normal-ish, at least when it came to my idea of a good time.
Then a few months ago, I decided to address a slowly percolating health issue.
Let me preface this by saying that all the tests have come back clear and I am basically fine. No biggie, as they say. But during the whole biopsy/second opinion process, my entire being was screaming “Are you fucking kidding me? This is a biggie– this is The Biggie!”
Even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, looking back now it’s clear that I employed the skills honed way back when, at the grocery store.
Not at Google! I repeat: NOT AT GOOGLE. (Please don’t look at Google while waiting for test results. You’re welcome.)
I looked at what was scary.
After meeting with a surgeon who painted kind of a bleak picture, I found myself strolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s, planning my funeral, making a mental list of the friends who I could call on to help my sons and husband once I was gone.
Like a lot of women I know, one of the ways I cope with stress is to share with friends, which I did.
Some friends responded to my news with a big smile and, “Oh stop it– you’re FINE!” They meant only the best, of that I am sure and I love them for wanting to save me from my own dark side, but flipping on the lights isn’t always the compassionate move.
And plus, how could they possibly know I was fine, at that point? I couldn’t know that about them and I would never pretend to.
One friend and I talked about what we could binge watch during my chemo. We discussed the merits of something called “exposure burial” vs. cremation. I instructed her to save my journals but delete my texts, which she totally understood. We laughed about how crazy it was, but we never shut each other down.
She sat with me in the dark.
Although I had been talking funerals, and chemo, and loss, my real fear was of having to go through it alone.
By the simple act of not looking away, she told me that nothing about me was too scary. She would be there, even if/when things got that fucking bad. She would watch t.v with me, and find me banana popsicles, and help me change my bandages.
I’d do the same for her.
There’s an image in my mind that, if it had happened back in 1972, would have made all the difference: it’s of a little girl, at the far end of the meat section. She is shivering from cold coming off the refrigerated cases, and from what she sees when staring into them. She doesn’t want to look away, but feels her friend standing next to her, and knows she is not alone.
They both look.
And they are both afraid, and less afraid, together.