As a child I feared dogs. They had large sharp teeth, made loud noises, moved aggressively, and often stuck their noses in my crotch. To this day I avoid them. I also worried about the end of the universe, torn between wanting a scientific answer and the hopes extended by religion. Nuclear war (this was the height of the cold war), being dateless for homecoming, and going deaf also made my list of items to worry about.
We all fear something. It may border on the absurd and irrational or have deep roots in reality. We often take steps to avoid confronting the fear, burying it deep in our psyches. But try as we might, we all must face the inevitable and final fear—death. No escape there.
On my voyage from birth to death, I’ve come across other major issues that set up a quaking, knee-knocking in me. A sample:
Loss of a partner
A life-threatening disease
People who aren’t neurotic worriers will shake their heads over this list. Che sera, sera, they say. Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. I’m not made in this fashion. I grab a fear and agonize over it until sleep evades me and I feel sick at my stomach. (Unfortunately that never causes weight loss.) I go to great lengths to avoid the subject of my fear, even other people going through it. Shake it in my mental jaws, jerk it around, like my much-feared dogs with a squirrel, until the issue gets resolved somehow.
I’m beginning to understand, however, that living through a fear can bring me to a place of peace and acceptance within myself. Once I lost my job, I realized I could always get another one and ultimately I might be better off. When several close friends developed life-threatening diseases, I felt terrible and worried on their behalf, but they continued on, deriving even more joy and challenge out of each day of their lives. I’ve experienced near-poverty and know my loved ones and I can live on nearly nothing and could survive a major disaster, fiscal or otherwise.
My most recent brush with a major fear grew over a year. I’ve had credit cards stolen twice, then the account hacked once. About 12 months ago, I received notice of another hacking. Followed by another. Followed by still another. I’d frantically change passwords, phone numbers, codes. Even more frantically try to remember my new codes. What if a villain accessed my financial accounts and stole all my money?
Then, despite following the advice of experts about security, the worst happened. My IRS account was compromised. A few days after the astounding letter from the IRS requesting I confirm my identity, I was making dinner. I wondered why I wasn’t upset. A light switched on in my mind. The worst had happened, and nothing of significance had changed. I still had family and friends, I wasn’t penniless, the house hadn’t collapsed.
Incident by incident I’m learning that fearful situations provide growth, if I let them, just like other experiences. The boogiemen are in my mind, and I can battle through them and win peace
When I look at one particular photo from my childhood, it captures my family perfectly: Disneyland, 1950s, planted on the edge of a circular planter. With one hand, my mother grips the stroller containing the current baby (there always was a new one), staring off to the right. The kids strewn to her side, also sitting, probably for fighting or misbehaving, each of us looking into the distance, not at one another.
Way over on the left, separated from the rest of us, my grandpa. The fedora hat he always wore, even in the California heat, alone, isolated, also staring off. My father, the one behind the camera, trying to capture visually what he always sought emotionally, and never succeeded in finding—the perfect happy American family. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, everyone, smile,” as he stretched his lips in a grin, pointed his camera and shot.
Leo Tolstoywrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t know if I agree. Nothing in life is that simple, especially as I grow older. I started thinking about families when reading an author who’d entered some hyper-critical observations on his own father—his over-protectiveness, his predictions of failure. I imagine that dad wanted to protect his son. I now know after having children and grandchildren of my own that most of us simply try to do the best we can.
At times, if I imagine one of mine in danger, or hurting, or discouraged, the love I have swells inside me, like yeast doubling, tripling in size until it’s about to choke me. I have to think my parents had the same response, even if I didn’t know then.
There’s much more to the photo of my family than just an image of people together on outing. Separate, isolated, roiling with emotions that at least some of the time were resentful and angry. There’s much more to the stories those people lived: my mother, abandoned by her mother before adolescence; my father, whose first wife died in pregnancy, leaving him with two little girls to raise; several sisters still to face death, poverty, disappointments in their lives; brothers with their own challenges.
I’ve avoided writing about my family for years because it hurt too much. Was my family dysfunctional, or simply normal? Life can’t be happy and smooth all the time. What hurts the most is my inability to change myself in the past, compensate for my shortcomings. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop running away. Time to honor those people for being themselves, doing their best. Acknowledge the closeness we had, what we brought to one another, and, yes, the love we felt. But whether to use memoirs, essays, or fiction, I don’t know yet.