Of course, that’s a lie, a lie I tell myself alternately as a comfort and as a spur to action.
They’ve always been dying, but now that I’m in my mid-century, people in their 40s seem like they’re just getting started with adult life, just coming into their own, and suddenly they’re gone before they can make their mark.
I’m really talking about myself and my fears. Oddly, those haven’t intensified as I age; rather, they’ve been painfully intense ever since I first looked at the stars out the car window one night and wondered where the universe ended — and went into my first panic attack.
I was 7. That’s over 40 years of panic attacks.
Mine are fairly mild, as I know them, at least physiologically. The primary symptom is — well, for want of a more clinical description, a soul scream. They usually come at night, in bed, as I’m falling asleep, and then I don’t fall asleep.
The soul scream is often translated into audible sound, and occasionally, I wake Steve up, deliberately or accidentally. He can create these beautiful visualizations to move my mind off the topic — dying before my great work, or dying period — and I can move past the fear into rest.
My sleep habits have evolved to avoid this pattern as much as possible. Turning off the light and closing my eyes in the dark until sleep takes me is anathema; I prefer accidental sleep, either the kind that overtakes me as I like comfortably on the couch watching TV or the kind that makes me drop a book on my face while I’m reading in bed.
Wiser women than I have offered different responses. My therapist suggested I should sit with the feelings, notice them, allow them. That freaks me out. Why would I welcome my enemy? I’ve been fighting to control these feelings for so long.
In Jim Jarmusch’s movie “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” the title character reflects on his meditation practice:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords. Being carried away by surging waves. Being thrown into the midst of a great fire. Being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake. Falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.
For those into visualization and manifestation, I imagine this might not sound like a great idea. But I’m really not afraid of the mode of death, and I’m not afraid of dying in pain, since I visualize demanding palliative care with my next to last breath.
Perhaps, as my mother has suggested, my fear is more about loss than about death. It’s certainly not a fear of being ripped apart my either the elements or wild animals. Death is deep loss, whichever side of it you’re on. Losing my father was never as scary as my own fear of being snuffed out. In fact, one night during his dying I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “No more fear, okay?” and it was okay. I’ve had many fewer panic attacks since then.
And I’m not panicking now. I’m trying to find leverage: for myself, against inertia and the idea that “indeed there will be time.” There will b, until there isn’t. Dropping dead in one’s 40s means time ran out. The story is over. “One more action with certainty” has either been performed, or missed.
Or is an impossible ideal.
A sense of impending mortality distinguishes us from the animals, yet I understand many people get through the day without contemplating their bodily loss, until it goes from impending to imminent. What I’m trying to make sense of here, I guess, is the need, MY need, to find a balance between the awareness of a tiger running after me and the desire to taste one more sweet strawberry before the end.
Composition note: On Monday I read a brief note on Facebook about the death of someone I was linked to in the very deep past. I want to say that spurred me to be a better person on that day, or make some art, or smell the roses, but I lived my life very much as I always do. The Jim Jarmusch quote haunts me (as the movie, a surprisingly lighthearted quirky gangster multiple murder story, has since it came out in 1999) and I often wonder if the focused concentration of such a meditation would help me.
Thanks for reading this far. While I’d love to ask for a comment about your thoughts on death, that sounds like a bit of a reach, even for me. Yet, that’s me, and I’d really welcome it.