—By a Thousand Cuts
—I fell off the map somewhere back in October, judging by the dates on my most recent blog posts.
I realize now that this was right before my grandmother’s funeral in early November, which I unexpectedly flew to Buffalo for after she spent a weekend in the hospital, intubated and eventually comatose, finally passing away in the night before my mother was able to reach the hospital on a Red Eye flight up from Dallas. This was November. In September, as I was driving up to Colorado with my best friend, Brandon, I found out that my cousin had gone missing in Alabama. The next day his body was discovered and his wife was under arrest, he was 37 years old and he left behind a 4 year old daughter. I remember sitting on a set of bleachers on a cool Colorado evening, watching as Brandon’s sister Maria preformed with her school’s color guard team, wondering aloud to his mother about my cousin; whether he was okay, why how he could have left the house without his car keys, phone, or wallet.
It jogged one of my earliest memories, I was probably two or three years old and I was playing with my cousin and my older brother in my grandma’s living room. My cousin picked me up and swayed me around the room, he joked to my brother about holding me up into the fan and I remember laughing. He seemed so big to me, like a giant, he would’ve been about fourteen or fifteen years old then.
And this would’ve been even before my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which she lived with for over a decade, her mind always sharp but her body becoming less and less functional as years went by. I remember her hand shaking as she sat in her arm chair and talked to me, she had bright blue eyes and her lips would crack into a smile when I told her different details about my life; always filling her in on things when we’d drive up from Texas to visit.
We lived with her when I was eight years old, the first time we moved back from Texas and were house hunting for our own place. And when I was very young she was always there, I remember being in the back seat of the car, strapped to a car-seat in the earliest years, as my mom and my grandma took me from store to store; for groceries or clothes, different errands like that, sometimes toys as a reward for when I was well-behaved.
And in 2017 it was my aunt who had passed away, from a lung cancer which she didn’t know that she had, until she felt a pain in her back on the drive back from a vacation in North Carolina. She went to the doctor to get it checked out only to discover that it was already Stage 4. This must’ve been in the summer or early fall of 2016, she only made it another year after that, passing away in July. I remember at every gathering she was always smiling and laughing, she used to exude a kind of warmth that made me feel comfortable, even though I was so shy and nervous.
This trip to Buffalo, for my grandma’s funeral, was the first time I’d been back since my aunt had passed away, it was the first chance I had to really process that she, or my cousin for that matter, was gone. She was in her fifties, younger even than both of my parents. She had stopped smoking about 20 years before the cancer diagnosis, but still the damage had apparently been done. Another one of my earliest memories involved being in the living room of my aunt’s house with her and my mom, the two of them were talking on the sofa and my aunt had a lit cigarette dangling from her fingers. I couldn’t have been much older than two or so, I remember seeing the glowing orange cherry at the end of her cigarette and reaching up towards it from where I sat in my mother’s lap, mesmerized by the bright color. She quickly pulled her hand away from me, “Don’t touch that, sweetie!” she said, and cautioned, “It’s hot.” I remember that memory came back to me at total random when I was at work one day in 2016. It was very eerie, because later that same day I called my parents on my lunch break and they told me that my aunt had been diagnosed.
All three of these people had existed in my life literally from the point that it had began, they were in my very earliest memories. In fact my grandmother had looked after me for the first week of my life, because shortly after I was born my mom had to go with my dad’s parents to pick him up in New York City, where he was graduating from medical school. I don’t know if it’s entirely possible, but I have this hazy memory that could’ve only been from that week, it may have even been a dream. But it’s this vague recollection of waking up alone in the dark, on my back, the bars of the crib rising up on all sides around me, the enclosure seeming to be impossibly high. I didn’t know where I was, I just had a deep and instinctive knowledge that my mother was gone and I didn’t recognize anything. A face hovered over the crib, was it this presence that woke me up? I was terrified, I remember screaming and crying as though my reaction was somehow separate from my being, a physical reflex. It was my grandpa looking down at me, and I distinctively hear my grandma’s voice yelling, from somewhere, maybe a few feet away, “Damn it, Jim!” and then there was some kind of argument.
As I’ve said it could have been a dream, maybe several fragments of different memories all cut apart and pieced together. I don’t know, but the fact is it seems like it goes back nearly to my birth, and my grandma was there. She had a long life and a family that loved her. And after all her health had been declining slowly but surely for years, nothing about it had felt sudden or like we were cheated. I was sad to see her go, I almost couldn’t look at her in the casket at first, because the body seemed so wooden and inanimate compared to the living person, but it made sense none the less. I could make peace with the facts, if not the emotions.
But there was something else about it that really affected me, that began working on me, somewhere deep in my unconscious mind, before I was even aware of it. I experienced the passing of these three seemingly permanent fixtures in my life, more or less, all at once. And while I did so I was back in Buffalo for the first time in a few years, seeing it changed, seeing the cousins in my generation married and having children, seeing my parents visibly older. I realized while I was there that, as far as time is concerned, I am beginning to move into the age group my parents were in when I was little and having those earliest memories. Meanwhile my parents are moving into the age group that my grandparents occupied for so long and my cousins’ children are occupying my former space. And my grandparents’ generation is moving on entirely.
In the week after I got back from the funeral I had this sudden panic attack at work, it was like out of nowhere a freight train of anxiety was barreling through my head and I felt like I needed to take off and run. I walked calmly to the bathroom and took deep breaths inside of a stall, trying to pull myself together, in a half hour or forty five minutes I was back to normal. I started breaking out in hives shortly after I got back too, it seemed almost continuous until I was finally able to manage the anxiety.
Which wasn’t easy, at work we were moving into the holiday shopping season and things were getting worse and worse, I had to find coping mechanisms to deal with these things on the spot so that I could do my job. I remember standing at the registers a few days in particular and my chest would become tight, like I couldn’t breathe, and I had to work through it, breathing deeply from my diaphragm as I checked out customers and tried to convince myself that it would be okay, so that the symptoms would subside.
The real breakthrough came when I made the logical segue from the Japanese literature I’ve been reading obsessively to books and lectures on Zen meditation and Buddhism by Shunryu Suzuki and Alan Watts. The central tenants of which describe the universe as ever-changing and advise that one be at peace with impermanence. It was only later, after I started working out again, which helped quite a bit too, that I realized all of this anxiety that had built up, completely beneath the surface, was related to my inability to accept responsibility for my own life—in effect, to be an adult.
The changes I’ve been seeing shook me on the deepest levels, because I’m 25 years old and I’ve reached an age where it’s undeniable that I’m no longer a kid. I’m not necessarily old, but I’ve reached the point where I have to make choices. The rest of my life is no longer a fantasy, no longer a swirling void of hopes and chaotic possibilities, I’ve reached an age where I need to act—to write, to seek out opportunities, to push myself—otherwise I’ll begin to watch doors close, one after another, until there are none left. It’s strange how these things build up little by little, winding tight around some deep insecurity, and then they finally just boil over.
I realized that the anxiety that I was feeling was like a kind of motion sickness, but rather than being a reaction to movement, it was a reaction to the passage of time.
The thing about going to Buffalo, dealing with family dying and aging, watching myself age and the world change, is it made the kinds of defenses I use seem totally insubstantial. For years I’ve been shirking off responsibility, trying to delay it, to push it away further and further down the road, to tell myself the fear isn’t there. But all it takes is one swift movement of reality, or a few over time, and these defenses completely crumble. Finally the only thing I could do was to accept it, to see it all as a challenge that could ultimately make me better and try my best to embrace it in that way. When I realized that, I started leaning into the anxiety when I would feel it; when I would get worried that I was feeling dizzy, or that I couldn’t breathe, or that I’d pass out, I started simply accepting it, waiting for the worst possibility in those moments of panic. And nothing would actually happen; my world didn’t come crashing down, there was no final calamity.
When I felt like I couldn’t get enough air to breathe, I started running and lifting weights, and my body made up the difference, because my airways weren’t actually restricted. When I became worried that I’d pass out, I simply stood there and waited for it. And my eyes stayed open and I remained totally conscious. Nothing happened, over and over when the anxiety would strike me, until the feelings got less and less severe. In fact, in my experience, the acceptance feels like less a burden and more like liberation. The thing that I’ve been afraid to accept all of these years, my own autonomy, my need to make definite choices in a world of infinite and disorientating possibilities, was exactly the thing that would always set me free. And by choosing a direction and committing to it, I’ve simply laid down a solid foundation for a life I’ve wanted all along.
Life is so short and fleeting, and things change so rapidly, that the only sensible thing to do is to try and live in defiance of death, with a sense of creative hope and vigor. To consciously decide to live hopefully in a world where everything seems inherently hopeless.