Live Through This

Hearts Break

My fear of death is why I’ve been in therapy basically since the day I was born.

Collage by Beth

Collage by Beth

“Sorry we’re late,” my mother says. She hangs up her coat and scoots into the booth where I’ve been waiting, at a local Italian spot approximately halfway between my parents’ house and my new place, where I’d moved to be closer to her and my dad, who follows her in what seems like slow motion: hanging his coat with visible effort, carefully settling into the booth with a pained look on his face. Though he usually has a million things to say—or at least a joke to make—he sits there silently. His skin is grayish-green; he looks terrible.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” I ask.

“I ate something bad, I think,” he says. He mumbles something about chicken and feigns interest in the menu for approximately 20 seconds before announcing that he’d like to go home.

“Do you want to go to the emergency room?” I ask this because I am the worrier, the worst-case-scenario daughter, the paranoid middle kid. He says no, insists that it’s indigestion from the chicken, and says he just wants to go home. It’s the chicken, he keeps saying, the chicken the chicken the chicken.

An hour later, we’re in the ER waiting for a Lifestar helicopter to transport my father to a cardiac unit at another hospital, where he’ll receive emergency surgery for the major heart attack he’s been having all afternoon. On the drive down to the hospital, with my father in the air above us, I make a joke about him owing “the chicken” an apology. Nobody laughs.

***

Roughly six hours after my father showed up at the restaurant complaining of chest pains, a cardiologist who bears an eerily striking resemblance to Roger Sterling approaches my family in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit’s waiting room and gives us an update: Dad is going to be fine, but he’ll need to return in a few weeks for quadruple bypass surgery. His heart is a bit of a mess.

We’re allowed to visit in threes: my mother, my younger sister, and I go in first. My dad is sipping on ginger ale and smiling, relieved that the surgery worked, explaining how he feels 100% better and already making jokes about his morphine drip and his glamorous hospital wear. My mother and my sister say the right things, because they are socially adept: they wish my father well and laugh with him and try to make things as normal as possible. I’m the one who tells him to stop smoking, something I’ve been telling him since 1988 or so.

“Give him a break,” my sister says, rolling her eyes. “Like he doesn’t know that already. Come on. Not the time.”

But that is how my brain works: I have to tell you this, I have to ask you this, right now. That’s OCD, I guess. If I don’t tell you now, it will be my fault if something goes wrong two seconds from now. When I love you, it is always the time.

“I know I shouldn’t have bothered him about the cigarettes,” I said to my sister as we left the hospital. “I just want there to be another time.”

“I know,” she said.

***

My father’s prognosis is good: his heart has already healed, and his cardiologists have high hopes for him. He’ll need to be careful about his medications and what he eats (and yes, he stopped smoking), but he was fortunate to have access to good medical care and is doing well. He has recently started walking several miles a day, and everyone is very proud of his progress, though I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I’ve spent nearly every day since his heart attack in a low-level panic, trying to shake the feeling of fear that swept in as soon as I saw his ashen face in the restaurant.

I’ve been close to only three people who have passed away. Two died young, and quickly, through accidents. The other, my grandmother, died from complications of cancer, and her condition deteriorated so rapidly that I never had time to really process her illness before it took her away. One day she was fine, then she was sick, and then she was gone. As a result, I can’t talk about death, or aging, or the inevitability of mortality. I write stories about these things instead, because at least then I get to control how things go.

But seeing my father carted away to a helicopter while my mother nervously stood by clutching a hospital bag filled with his everyday clothes pulled me into reality, where bodies have limits, time makes its own rules, and I don’t have control over anything. For years I had carried my parents around in my mind as permanently 45-ish, refusing to acknowledge the fact that they were aging (note to my parents, who are probably reading this: I am not calling you old, relax), and that that meant I was aging too. I had built a snow globe of delusion around my family, believing we’d always be the way we were when I was 15 or so, even though my sisters had gone on to have children of their own, even though my father’s hair had turned from brown to silver, even though there were tiny lines forming around my own eyes. Sitting in the ICU waiting room, I finally realized that you can’t protect anybody by placing them under glass. Glass breaks, shatters like bones, like hearts, like everything.

***

I am simultaneously skeptical and jealous of people who claim that they do not fear death. They seem to have somehow attained a peaceful state of acceptance that allows them to live in the present moment, while the rest of us try to stop time somewhere in the past, or gaze in terror at the future. (Or maybe the people I envy are actually a lot like me: suspended in a profound state of denial.) If it weren’t true that most of the world is terrified of death, I don’t think we’d be so hung up on growing old—and the beauty-industrial complex, which thrives on promises of “reversing” the aging process, in a nice bit of irony, would wither and die.

Even writing this piece about the very real death scare my father put us all through, I can’t quite bring myself to talk about IT. I couldn’t do it at all in my first draft, and in my second I talked a lot about Sephora and Ghost Hunters. My fear of death is the main reason I’ve been in therapy basically since the day I was born, and I still can’t find the words to deal with it. Lately I’ve been trying to think of death in terms of physics (and by “in terms of physics” I mean “through my very limited understanding of physics”) and finding a sort of solace in the concept of parallel universes and energies that expand and retract. Nobody knows for sure what happens to us when we go, which is sort of lovely, if you think about it, because it allows us to create an ending while we’re still alive to consider it. Death is certain, but what happens after is anyone’s guess. (Unless you believe everything you see on Ghost Hunters, in which case I guess I’ll see you in 100 years when we’re laughing and yelling “GET OUT” at a bunch of dudes while they run through the haunted remnants of a Taco Bell.)

***

My father keeps a picture of his father on his desk. In the picture, my grandfather is probably 18 or 19, young and handsome and staring at the camera as if the entire endeavor is a waste of his time. He died when I was four, of a heart attack, at 65 years old—a year older than my father is right now. He did not live to see the medicine and the technology that healed my father. He did not live to see a lot of things. But I know so much about him: that he could smoke a cigarette while talking, like marines in black and white movies, that his favorite movie was the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, that his favorite song was “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and that he was a World War II veteran who kept his Purple Heart locked up in a drawer, not one to seem particularly proud of awards for war, for doing what he was asked to do, for surviving a terrible nightmare.

I know these things because my father told them to me. This is how people survive, even when their time runs out. They become stories, and mysterious expressions in photographs, and hand-me-down memories.

Above my father’s desk there’s a picture of him holding my baby niece, which I like to think is a reminder: to keep going, to stay healthy, to make more memories, to recognize that the passage of time isn’t all gloom and doom as much as it’s an ongoing adventure. He’s never actually said any of this to me. I am making major assumptions here.

I do wonder if my father thinks of these things, or what he thought when he was in the hospital, but I know he’ll never tell me, because that’s not how we roll. We will make jokes and we will laugh, and we will be thankful for doctors and modern medicine and second chances and the gift of time. And we’ll do what people in our current state do best, every single day we’ve got: we will wake up, and we will live. ♦

36 Comments

  • GlitterKitty April 1st, 2013 8:08 PM

    This really relates to my life. I am also terrified that something bad is going to happen to my grandparents. Almost every time they call, “Someone is in the hospital” flashes through my head. I don’t know exactly what it is about death that I’m afraid of…. I think it’s more change and not knowing how I would react to a family member dying. But thank you for writing this beautiful article.

    • soviet_kitsch April 1st, 2013 8:36 PM

      oh god, i feel exactly the same way. whenever my mom is out and i hear the phone ring i think that it’s my aunt calling because she’s been in an accident and is in the hospital. i think the worst part of someone dying is the helplessness that comes along with it. i hope we both push through that fear <3

      • Lillypod April 1st, 2013 10:16 PM

        same…i just can’t imagine my grandparents dying…even though they will eventually. I just don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not scared of death, but I am terrified of loss

  • aylaluvsBM April 1st, 2013 8:09 PM

    one of the best live through this that I’ve read, amazing

  • witheringslytherin April 1st, 2013 8:12 PM

    This is so beautiful, I love your writing. I wrote a long bit of this out in my diary because it sums up some of my own ideas about death – the “people becoming stories” passage is lovely and sad all at the same time

  • AnaRuiz April 1st, 2013 8:12 PM

    This article is beyond beautiful. A Rookie must-read.

    http://anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • witheringslytherin April 1st, 2013 8:13 PM

    Also my cousin recently died young (19) and this is really comforting.

  • Kimono Cat April 1st, 2013 8:17 PM

    This is so touching, it makes my soul ache.

  • Helena K. April 1st, 2013 8:19 PM

    made me tear up. especially the grandfather part.

  • abby111039 April 1st, 2013 8:39 PM

    This was lovely. <3

  • billie April 1st, 2013 8:44 PM

    This is so touching. I spend so much time worrying about my parents dying, more than I worry about myself dying. They’re both quite young, both in their late 40s. The thought of them not being here one day is terrifying.

  • Panda April 1st, 2013 9:16 PM

    I totally get what you mean by you have to say something because you think something bad will happen if you don’t. Whenever my boyfriend bikes to work I always have to say “bike safe” otherwise I think something bad will happen.

    Beautiful article

  • LeavesThatAreGreen April 1st, 2013 9:54 PM

    This made me cry.

    I worry a lot too. I rarely say goodbye, I say “see you” to make sure I will meet everyone again. I often start crying when I remember that people I know will die.

    pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease do not ever die

  • pez-darling April 1st, 2013 10:27 PM

    This is a beautiful article! I actually lost my dad really suddenly to a heart attack a few years ago, so I could really relate to this. I’ve actually been meaning to write an article about dealing with sudden loss and send it into Rookie, but I can never get past the first paragraph! I can definitely understand what Pixie is feeling.

  • sophiethewitch April 1st, 2013 10:41 PM

    Sorry, this is pretty unrelated, but are submissions already closed for Age of Innocence? I had an idea but I didn’t expect it to fill up so fast.

    • Anaheed April 1st, 2013 11:21 PM

      We’re still taking submissions — send your idea!

  • Devyn April 1st, 2013 11:42 PM

    Wow. This is so timely for me. I literally had a panic attack at nearly 2am on Easter Sunday because I was thinking about death and dying and the state of “being dead” for too long again. I ripped one of my shirts so that my hands had something to do and I screamed so loud I could barely hear it. Thanks for this piece – it resonates with my life immensely at the moment.

    I came across a related quote from Mel Brooks today that I thought I’d share: “Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you’ve got to jump around a lot, you’ve got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death.”

    Something I need to remind myself every now and then.

  • Clairebearscare April 2nd, 2013 12:09 AM

    My grandmother died this past December and it was really shocking for me. She was fine and then two days later she died. When my family and I went to say goodbye it was so hard. Members of my family died when I was young, so I never really had to say goodbye to anyone. I was so scared when I saw her, I just started crying. It was really tough. Now, my dad’s dad died when he was 65, I think. I worry a lot about my dad because he’s a smoker (well 11 days without one!!) and a drinker. I worry about my dad so much. I used to think I wasn’t afraid of death, but, I am. But, like you said, you just gotta wake up and live. Perfect article. Thank you!

  • Aithy Palfreyman April 2nd, 2013 1:12 AM

    I’m not scared of dying myself (though I’ve got a completely irrational terror of aging) but when I was little I used to have mini panic attacks in the night at the thought of my parents dying. It must be so, so awful to actually go through thinking that was really about to happen.
    Lovely article, thank you :)
    (I love that Mel Brooks quote!)

  • Jasmine April 2nd, 2013 1:47 AM

    This article was beautiful and the bit about people becoming stories is something that really resonates with me. Spirituality gives me peace about dying, but I get terribly sad when I think about nobody really remembering me in a century.
    I want to be remembered, to be considered a classic. I want flowers pressed in between the pages of my writing and my photos and art collected like precious gems. I guess it’s not death I fear but being forgotten. To have lived this life and not made any lasting difference – that is what terrifies me the most.

  • Mary the freak April 2nd, 2013 6:06 AM

    I finally realized that you can’t protect anybody by placing them under glass. Glass breaks, shatters like bones, like hearts, like everything.

    This is so awesome. this article was beautiful. Actually, I don’t fear death itself – I am afraid of being forgotten. that scares the crap out of me.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Aidan Wright April 2nd, 2013 7:06 AM

    My dad had a heart attack a few months ago, and this story brought up so many emotions. Finally all my similar feelings could be put into words, thank you so much

  • Amy Rose Walter April 2nd, 2013 8:37 AM

    Thanks for this. I’m always so scared my grandparents will die and i dont visit them enough because we live in different countries. After almost dying twice this year, first from severe malaria, second from burst appendix, i am not afraid of death at all now. but losing loved ones? thats scary.

    http://www.amyrosewalter.blogspot.com

  • hanna96 April 2nd, 2013 9:28 AM

    What a lovely article! Ive been worrying a lot about death recently and I find this really comforting and has put it into perspective! Thanks you!!

  • A Beautiful Tragic April 2nd, 2013 9:58 AM

    Oh Pixie, death has always been the only thing that bothers me at the age of adolescence and childhood too. I’ve witnessed two of my loved ones passed away, an aunt and an uncle who both passed away of cancer. Since then, I became extremely paranoid about this and death has always been a thing that will never get away from my mind and soul and will bother me until death arrives and everything is explained. This is an amazing article and I love you for writing about death. I feel like hugging you. We probably understand each other. Thank you for letting me know that I’m not the only one in the world who thinks so much about an issue that is NOT supposed to be even wondered or questioned- because it freaks the hell out of you until you die, which affects your living.

  • bohowithlove April 2nd, 2013 10:55 AM

    As a child, I used to think a lot about death and losing my parents and family. It continued in my early teenagehood until I found peace and meaning in faith. God taught me to be grateful and appreciate every moment in my life. Today, I still think about it sometimes but I never question that it only means a transition to something more peaceful and beautiful, inexplicable to the human kind.

  • soretudaaa April 2nd, 2013 4:51 PM

    The last couple of paragraphs is exactly how I feel about Heaven and Hell. I’m a Catholic, but I’ve always seen “the afterlife” as a metaphor for how the world will have changed after you lived in it, how, if you help others and live a good life, once you’re gone people will think about you and smile. You will have left happiness, which is the most important legacy there is.

    …but in the meantime I’m fucking TERRIFIED of dying, it’s just that the thought that my life can change something about the world and give something to people makes it a little bit prettier.

    • Tourdivoire April 2nd, 2013 5:57 PM

      This is a beautiful idea! I’m gonna think about it some more (I’m a catholic too and I’ve been struggling with the whole Heaven/Hell concept which does not feel very real to me).

      Pixie this is fine writing, it goes in my Rookie Top Ten! So helpful and relatable.

  • Tihana nevermind April 2nd, 2013 6:08 PM

    “I am simultaneously skeptical and jealous of people who claim that they do not fear death.”

    I can really relate to this. Not being afraid of death must be deliberating in so many ways. I guess I envy the people who are certain this life isn’t “all there is” the most. Knowing that your personality and, well, your soul will never cease to exist probably feels very reassuring. Come to think of it, I guess, dying itself isn’t what I fear most. I’m just dreaded of losing myself, not phisically, but mentally. Of not being able to create thoughts and seeing the world. Like, any world. And if after a certain point we don’t reunite with our loved ones, I wonder what is the point? Is everything truly purposeless? And it feels like no one gets a happy ending afterall.

    Anyway, this is sooo beautiful and it really got me thinking.

  • silvermist April 2nd, 2013 7:26 PM

    This was my bedtime reading last night <3

    It's so strange how literally everyone faces death eventually and it has been this way since the beginning and yet no one knows for sure what happens after.
    I've been thinking about death a lot lately. Not my own death though as much as the death of people around me. The other day I was waiting for the train and there was this little girl playing around in the platform and steeling everyone's attention and my thoughts were ridiculous "what if she falls? what if she dies?" and finally as the train was coming "no, she won't die. just stop thinking about it!" But the truth is children die everyday, there are children dying from hunger as I write this. There was this girl from my school who lost her mom – suicide, her mom threw herself in front of the same train I use everyday to go to the city.
    I know I'm really fortunate, I feel thankful everyday for feeling safe at night, for having a family and friends I can talk to most of the time but I still feel really sad. What if there is a world war in a near future? (I google everyday about news on wars) What if I lose everyone I love? Why is there so much sadness? Why do I keep studying for hours to get a "good" job, why am I pressed to spend my days trapped in working to earn money – how does having money to buy things help making me and everyone less sad?
    Sorry, this was too long and I was rambling.

    I loved your text, Pixie and I'm happy your dad is ok now!

  • Caterina Maria April 3rd, 2013 3:36 AM

    If I can shed some light on not fearing death?

    I’m only not afraid of my own. You walk with death for long enough, you stop being so terrified. Bouts of suicidal depression + CFIDS = usually feeling half-dead anyhow. I actually got used to the idea I might not make it as long as the people around me.

    But I am terrified of the day the last of my loved ones will go. I am so far from being ready, but my mother’s in her sixties now. I am not okay with that. Heck, my oldest cat will be twelve in May and THAT bothers me. Worst of all, I’ve always known my partner will die well before I do (pesky twenty-six year age difference). I’m going to be the last woman standing in a couple of families, and that hurts.

    I love them as best I can while we’re all here and pray to whoever’s listening that I’m going to go first. Well, first of the humans. Pets are, unfortunately, only going to bless us with their presence for a short while, which is worth so much that we do it over and over, eh? So first of the humans is my hope. And if I survive — maybe by then I’ll have figured out how to cope.

    Hang in there. Much love.

  • Wallis Kate April 3rd, 2013 8:32 AM

    this is so relatable and pretty and wise

  • Rowena April 10th, 2013 6:20 PM

    I’ve been reading the comments, and I see people saying they can relate to this – but I can’t really. I feel so incredibly isolated in my experience. This year three people in my life were snatched suddenly and unexpectedly and I am broken. The brother of an old friend, who I have known for years but become distant from, was stabbed. He was 18, never involved in any kind of trouble. He was on his way to hand out CV’s and a man in his late 20′s killed him as a gang initiation task. We were all shocked beyond belief, and heart-broken. But it made me treasure life. Then, less than a week later, a beautiful, wise, hilarious,and astonishingly caring woman who I had become close to whilst working in a charity shop with her died. I still do not know how. I was told it was sudden, I was told third hand. Through Beryl’s death, I began to appreciate the gifts that everyone brings to your life and I found spiritual comfort.

    I began to move on: yes death was present in my world, but that was inevitable, natural and I could find myself thinking positively again.
    Then just as I thought spring had sprung – life was coming and pushing out death – I got a phone call. My cousin had taken his own life.

    In the first 3 months of 2013, I had to deal with 3 deaths.

    I am left to think, everyday, who the other 9 will be.
    I AM TERRIFIED.
    I think everyday that I should let one of these things kill me. That car. That chest pain. That hunger.
    I am the only thing that linked those three lives, and those three unexpected deaths; I think of how if I die now, I would save 9 beautiful lives. And I weep.

  • bianca vicari June 3rd, 2013 5:27 AM

    Ever since i’ve hit my teen years, this constant thought has played on my mind. Great piece of writing we can all relate too in someway. I love the bit of positivity at the end, especially to such a gloomy subject,
    good read <3

  • orthopedicsaddleshoes June 20th, 2013 2:05 PM

    I really enjoyed this article – as I do with all of Pixie’s articles here on Rookie -, despite not feeling very much afraid of death or not thinking a lot about it.
    When I was a kid, I used to be paralysed by the fear of losing my parents. When my mother went to work, I would call her on the phone multiple times so I wouldn’t freak out.
    I think I lost my fear after my grandma and grandpa died a few years ago; she had Alzheimer’s disease and he was a heavy smoker and had Cancer for many years. I suffered a lot during the time period before their dead because I saw them suffering, but when they died, it just felt very natural and peaceful. Also, I started to disagree with the idea of an afterlife, which I guess must have made me more comfortable and confident about losing my loved ones.