As I write this I am traveling six hundred miles per hour, thirty-five thousand feet in the air. And I am afraid.
The fact that I am in first class takes the edge off some as it is hard to reconcile the antiseptic luxury around me with a fiery ball of twisted wreckage strewn about a corn field. The Heineken and scotch help as well but only in a “Novocain” type of way — a local numbness that doesn’t take my mind off the overall process that is going on.
It’s not worry that fills my mind. Worry is wondering if you can pay all your bills this month. It’s questioning if your wife still loves you. It’s hoping that the guy you went out with last night will call you. Worry is to fear what pleasure is to happiness, a superficial and transitory state. What I am talking about is primal and pathological.
In the seminal book 1984 by George Orwell, a key scene takes place where the protagonist Winston Smith is sent to Room 101 for his final interrogation. Room 101 is designed as a place where one is confronted with their worst fear — designed to break them mentally and fully coerce them into blinding acceptance and loyalty to the State.
There is no “Big Brother” looming over me at present, but I’m in my own personal Room 101.
Fear is a part of the human condition, ebbing and flowing as we go through life, following an inverse bell curve type of pattern.
Fear first visits us when we are young and vulnerable. Irrational fears of things like ghosts or that we might be adopted. Sometimes that fear is about potential loss.
I often remember when I was very young, waking up in the dark of the night with a fear of losing my parents. I would get out of bed, sneak down the hallway, and wait at their door, not returning to bed until I heard the oddly reassuring sound of my father snoring.
Fear takes a holiday as we get older and the zeal of adolescence courses through our veins. Childhood fears give way to a feeling of indestructibility and a sense of life-line that’s infinite. We fear nothing. I feared nothing.
Only when we have broadened and built up our lives up, both with things and with people, do we start to revisit the idea of fear. That’s when fear crept back into my life.
I’m an overdramatic dick right? What do I have to fear? I’m not sitting in a foxhole in Afghanistan. I’m not some poor kid waiting to see if his abusive dad is coming home drunk tonight. I’m not sitting in the waiting room of a hospital wondering if my results are going to come back “negative.” What right do I have to be afraid?
But that’s the nature of fear. It doesn’t make sense. It’s the innocuous event that takes you to an irrational result. The sharp twinge in your chest that turns out to be heartburn. The midnight phone call that’s only a wrong number. The ambulance you’re following behind that turns down your street but passes your house.
As I write this post in the jet stream of a coast-to-coast red-eye, I am fully embracing the irrational: trying to cathartically outwit fate, hoping that somebody actually losing their life in a plane crash while writing about losing their life in a plane crash is too ironic even for the grim reaper to stomach.
But it’s not flying that I fear. For the vast majority of my life I have flown without a second thought to my safety. Nor is it death that I fear for myself personally. Nobody wants to die, but I am of the pragmatic mindset that if I die, well, I won’t be around to worry about it anyway.
What I fear about death is leaving my two children at such a young age behind without me. I specifically fear a “sudden” death. A death that prevents a last loving and concentrated period of life lessons and memories to sustain them through their lives.
I spent the day I left with my children. To them it was just a normal day with their daddy, but to me it was a possible last chance to see their sweet faces. To hear the laughter in their voices. To hold them tight. To give them a kiss on the cheek at night as they dreamt.
I wondered what they would remember of me if I did not come back. Would they think I left them? Would they think that they did something wrong? Had I shown them both through words and action just how important they were in my life?
Would they think back on me at graduations, and weddings, and births yet to come as somebody who gave them a foundation from which they thrived, or as a hazy figure like some distant relative whose name they could never remember?
I sat with them both at breakfast that day and we talked. About princesses, Pokémon, and the cat that was playing outside. We went to the park and chased a squirrel and had a contest on the swings to see who could go higher. We ate pizza for lunch and I made a point of having their slices cut into thirds so they would be “size appropriate” for them. I let them both have ice cream, a double scoop in fact.
And at night before they went to bed I laid down beside them, looked in their eyes, and told them how special they were to me, and that I loved them with all my heart.
If I did not return I wondered what their lasting impression of me would be. I was playing memory roulette and trying to rig the game.
You never know what memory will stand out for you of a lost loved one. At twenty years of age, when my father died, I had the advantage my three and six year old would not. I had decades of memories to draw from, and an adult mind with which to remember them. Yet with all my advantages, the memory that sticks out for me most is one of the last, and one of the least likely.
As the tumor in my father’s head progressed, it slowly cut off his ability to speak, until he spoke no more. He was still there and lucid, but the mechanisms that made speech no longer functioned. It had been a month since he last talked, and I knew I had heard my father’s voice for the last time.
I would sit with him by his bed at home during the day while my mother was at work. We would watch TV, or listen to the radio, or I would read to him. Sometimes I just sat there and held his hand.
One day we were watching the Phil Donahue show, at the end of which they would roll a sixty-second promo of sponsors. One of the spots went, “Guests of the Donahue show stay at the Drake hotel when in Chicago”……
To which my father turned to me and said out of the blue, “I stayed at that hotel once when I was in Chicago.” Those were the last words he spoke and he died less than two months later. That is what I remember.
If you are reading this right now, then you know I am alive. I will have made it home to my children who only know that daddy had to “work a little extra,” and that he squeezed them a little bit harder and a little bit longer when he got home.
I don’t live my life in fear. I am grateful for all I have and thank my lucky stars for it every God damn day. But moments like now, when the fear takes hold remind me that I have to build memories for my children every day.
Each day that I leave them with a feeling of joy, and safety, and love, and support, and family, and self-worth, and confidence, and a belief in themselves, I get closer to killing that fear in me. To leaving it slaughtered, dead by the side of the road like an unholy demon.
Every day that I survive and give something good and decent of myself to my children, they have more of me to carry with them when I eventually do leave this existence behind.
But for now at least I am home. I am home. I am home.
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