What Happens When Your Biggest Fear Is Something Inevitable?
If impermanence is what scares you, it’s hard to take comfort in anything that might die or disappear one day.
“Sarah, I know your parents are wonderful people, but maybe you can help me understand this,” my therapist asked during a session that happened at some point after the death of my grandmother and the loss of my childhood home but before the death of my dog and the notification that my building’s owners have applied for a demolition permit. “Why did they feel the need to explain the impermanence of the universe to you at such a young age?”
My parents have no explanation for this. They barely have a memory of the event that I’d brought up in therapy. To be fair, I can’t be certain that my own version is completely accurate, either, given that I was all of 4 or 5 when it happened and somewhat traumatized by my recent initiation into the world of existential dread. But here’s how I recall it:
I was having a bath and talking about death, both under a certain amount of duress. But my feet were filthy and we’d recently buried a number of people and pets, so I suppose my parents multitasked. I was starting to wrap my mind around the fact that my fish were dead and we’d all join them someday, but not for a long time, when my parents threw a new wrench into the mix: nothing lasted forever.
This upset me. I wasn’t particularly excited about the whole death thing, but the idea that even stuff that couldn’t die would not survive us for all eternity was too much to bear.
I wasn’t particularly excited about the whole death thing, but the idea that even stuff that couldn’t die would not survive us for all eternity was too much to bear.
“The whole world?” I asked, horrified.
“The whole world,” my parents — they’ve sort of morphed into one unbearable truth-spewing entity in these memories — replied.
Scandalized, I latched onto the most solid, most permanent thing I could think of, sure that I’d found a loophole in all of this inevitable destruction. I pointed to the closet next to the tub and wailed “even the door?”
Even the door, they confirmed. “But there is one thing that will last forever,” they added. “My love for you.”
This did not help me at all. I couldn’t even picture what the love that two dead people had for another dead person would look like when it was floating around in Earth-less space and time, let alone take comfort in it. Nor could I understand how this invisible thing I couldn’t even imagine could possibly outlast a solid wood door.
Anyway, I’ve come back to this unfortunate formative experience because people and animals have been dying on me again and I can’t say that I’m handling it with any more wisdom or maturity now than I did three decades ago.
This wave of loss has come at a particularly bad time for me. I realize how ridiculous and myopic it is to say that. I can’t imagine any of it came at a great time for anyone involved — particularly not the ones who died — but my anxiety and depression have conspired to make me, among many other things, a bit selfish lately. And I really could have used someone or something to latch onto when many of the people and places I’ve ever called home are either out of my reach or on their way there.
It’s human nature to crave a certain amount of stability. But the world is, by its own nature, impermanent.
It’s human nature to crave a certain amount of stability. It’s the nature of illnesses like anxiety and depression to demand far more of it. But the world is, by its own nature, as impermanent as my parents warned me it was so many years ago, which can leave you constantly grasping for an anchor or foundation that can never hold you as long as you need it.
There’s a popular anxiety coping technique that recommends finding 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste can help to ground you in the present to help prevent an attack. People with depression are often encouraged to reach out to friends and loved ones. These methods, of grounding yourself in the world and your community in order to resist the ravages of your mind, have their value. I’ve often turned to them to supplement my therapy and medication in times of need. But what do you do when you can’t shake the knowledge that everything you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste are as temporary as the comfort you’re trying to extract from them? Who do you turn to when your support system isn’t there anymore?
The people who love you, the pets who have proven abilities to help you fight, and the places you can all retreat to when things are too overwhelming are no more permanent than anything else in your life. Which means that, at some point, everyone and everything who has provided a balm for your demons can, through no action or desire of their own, become one of the causes of it.
My overly protective but joyful grandmother, who managed to make three generations of my family feel like everything might be all right, has left us all rudderless and wondering if all right will ever be possible without her. My dog, whose fur I once whispered and cried into like my own personal confessional, has now left me sobbing into my own hands. I once used my 19-year-old cat’s loud and steady purring to regulate my heart rate when things were heading south, but now my heart races every time I check to see that she’s still breathing. The bedroom where I used to hide out to cry about all of these things and attempt to regroup belongs to someone else now, along with the closet door I pinned so many of my hopes on once upon a time. When I curl up in the room I’ve attempted to replace it with, I mostly think about how long I have before it’s torn down to make way for another ugly Toronto condo.
I might not know why my parents chose to warn me about all of this at such a young age, but I’m also not convinced that it matters. If they’d waited a few more years, what difference would it have made, really? There’s no age at which any of this is going to make any more sense or be any less terrifying. And at least they offered me that chaser, as empty as it seemed to me at the time.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself coming back to my parents’ tiny promise of permanence: the one thing that will last forever is my love for you. Not because I’ve figured it out and can take copious amounts of solace in it — it’s an idea that remains almost as intangible to me as it ever was — but because my parents once found something in it themselves. When they were my age, faced with their own shedding family trees — not to mention the fact that their only contribution to the next generation was currently crying over a closet door — they found some comfort in the permanence of their love that they tried to share.
I find myself coming back to my parents’ tiny promise of permanence: ‘the one thing that will last forever is my love for you.’
It’s a twisted comfort. You’re basically clinging to the holes in your heart where people and places used to be. And their memories and legacies are, at best, a half-inflated life raft that you try your best to hold onto in their wake. But it’s not nothing, either.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I muddle through and reconstruct a safety net out of the people and places still with me, the ghosts of those who aren’t, and the promise of new ones who might be worth the risk of future heartbreak or turmoil if and when they disappear too.
But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t throwing some other talismans into the mix as I go. The truth is, when I go “home” to visit my parents now, my mom and I still drive past the old place that we used to share with my departed grandparents to see how the new owner’s renovations are coming along. We take note of the new doors they’ve installed, and noticed the old windows that they’ve discarded in the back yard. And every time I don’t see a closet door among the refuse, I feel like I can hold on a little longer.