From a very young age I gathered that people die the way most children do: by watching Disney classics. If you are a woodland creature, and Walt gets a hold of you, best of luck because one of your parents is going to die.
I imagine that at that age death seemed like something fictional, something to put into a story to give it meaning. With this in mind, the stories I told with my Barbies had more death than a Greek tragedy, and at recess so many of friends were lost to dragons and rivers of lava. It was how we made things matter, the highest stake.
When I saw a dying person for the first time I was six. My mother, father, sister and I were staying at my uncle’s lake house. My aunt was at the end of a battle with cancer. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could see her frailness, how something I couldn’t name was slowly diminishing, draining from her withered features.
I chose to stay behind with her in the cool sunroom, watching Family Matters on a floral couch while my parents and sister puttered around on the sun-flecked lake. Her frail arms were covered in freckles from better days, and they shook when they reached out for a glass of lemonade or to pull the string of her Steve Urkel doll she was letting me play with. “Did I do thaaaat?” both screen Urkel and doll Urkel trilled. She had found the sitcom during her illness, she told me it made her laugh when things got bad.
It’s not that I felt I was being brave sitting so close to a dying person, someone my mother would later say looked like death itself. That’s not why I stayed with this distant relative I barely knew. It was that I was curious and couldn’t help myself. It was then that I understood the permanence of death. Though I was afraid of death, I still wanted to curl up beside it. That’s the thing about obsessing over what we fear, we are both repelled and attracted to it. I was like one of those nursing home cats that can sense who is the next to die, and then makes a warm vigil in their lap. I was Wednesday Addams, sans black dress.
Around this time, I would wake up many mornings with a sinking feeling in my stomach, a bitter queasiness, and would climb into my parents’ bed. I imagined I was small enough to fit on the piped edging of their mattress, not taking up nearly enough room to wake them. It’s a good thing I never did: can you imagine if your second grader came into your bed at dawn and when you asked if they had a nightmare, they replied, “No, mummy. I was only thinking about death until I made my stomach hurt”?
I kept my burgeoning obsession with death and my fear of dying a secret from my parents. I asked them to enroll me in acting classes. I decided that I would become a famous actress so that I would never really die. I’d be a silver screen ghost, as alive as Audrey Hepburn in her lithograph portraits, condemned to hang on freshman girls’ dorm room walls. Thing was, I was a terrible actress. The theater director told my parents for years that I was always in my own world, only waking from it to recite my lines. I stayed in that acting program for five years, until I was twelve, even though I hated it. I was so afraid of dying. I was so afraid of slipping away into a space I couldn’t imagine, or worse, into nothingness, without leaving behind something in this world.
By puberty I was no longer hit by the fear of not existing in the mornings, but at night. I’d be drifting off to sleep when all of a sudden my subconscious would send me some sort of a memento mori. I’d toss my limbs akimbo as if falling and suck in a lungful of air. If I could — sometimes it felt like my lungs were contracting. I am going to die and not be able to think anymore. I still do this. I’ve met people who do this.
This was also the time I would make a point to be home at 10 PM on Friday nights during middle school (rushing back from Teen Night at the Y or pizza parties in finished basements) to watch 20/20 with my mother. She was fascinated with JonBenet Ramsey’s murder, and I was preoccupied with becoming Barbara Walter’s successor. My mother had told me Barbara had been doing this for decades and was now quite old. “Television journalism must be some sort of life elixir!” I thought. This would be the way to live forever — to come into people’s living rooms every Friday night, glowing in that thick honey light ABC drenched Barbara in.
Now, in my very early twenties, I am less obsessed with death than I was as a child. Not because I have seen more of it, or because I mistakenly believe that the people I love are not perishable. My father was born in 1934. My mother once had a habit of polishing off a few glasses of wine before driving home from work. I am no stranger to worry. The difference now is that I make the conscious choice not to think about the day when I will no longer be conscious. It is kinder to myself, and to the bed partner I’d wake up to remind them that we’re going to die.
I do not feel that my childhood obsession with death kept me from life. What an extreme fear of death really is, conversely, is an acute, painful reverence for life. Perhaps it is unusual to think about death so much as a child only because, typically, the young are so far from old age and the death that comes with it. And yet it was never lack of time I was afraid of — life has always seemed long enough to me. Parents say they blink and their child is grown, but as a child I remember days stretching out into sunsets at 9 PM in the summertime, how long it took to wait for a salamander to emerge from its dirt tunnel, how the town-sponsored fireworks boomed your eardrums long after you went home. Children have such a beautiful sense of time because everything is new and so much has not happened yet. What panicked me then, and sometimes does now, was not the lack of time, but how time will go on without me to see it.