Death is always with me.
I think I first met her Christmas Eve, 1965. I was still a season short of two years old, living in Missouri with my mom who had fled back to her parents’ home to escape my father’s jealousy and rage. My mom’s name was Linda, and she was 16.
She was working that night, I think waitressing or as a cashier…it’s been decades since I heard the story, and have no one to ask now. But I do think she was working in a restaurant of some sort. And she took a ride home with a coworker. Home to spend Christmas with her family. With her baby. With me.
She never got there. Another driver–I think it was a woman–slammed into the car and my mom was ripped from my life forever.
I don’t remember her. I vaguely recall photos of her, but have none, as they’re in my father’s possession and I’m years out of contact with him. She was a cute young Italian girl with a nice smile and lots of long dark hair.
For most of my youth, I didn’t realize the impact her death had on me, except for the fact it put me in the path of a couple of incredibly damaging step-monsters, and left me in the hands of my mean-ass drunken father.
But as far back as I can recall, my greatest fear has been the loss of a loved one.
I remember talks with friends as a kid, years before I had anything like an actual romantic relationship, in which I spoke of how I figured if my girl ever died, I’d kill myself because I knew I couldn’t live without her. Whoever she turned out to be. And I wrote a story when I was fifteen from the POV of a high schooler whose girlfriend dies in a terrible car crash; he blows his brains out at story’s end.
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou…?
This terror of loss isn’t restricted to literal mortality. In relationships, I have abandonment issues that can make me insecure. Part of me is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, afraid of losing the person I love. And one of the worst traumas of my adult life was losing my first true love in my early twenties (she went back to her husband), a loss that traumatized me so deeply that for years it impacted my other relationships. On a deep level, it was like feeling my mother die all over again. Even now, losing a lover is like a jagged scream inside me that doesn’t want to end.
When I was a junior or senior, a girl from another school was killed in a car crash. I’d never met her, but my stepmother knew her mom. I seized on that bit of association and proceeded to talk to people at school about her, saying we were close, and that I thought we were on our way to being a couple. I played out the sad trauma for my friends, and for people who actually knew the girl and were perplexed they hadn’t known I was in her life. And like any good liar, I believed my lies, and I felt pain at the loss, even though I made it up whole-cloth.
I was always ashamed of having done that, and never understood what possessed me, until I was in therapy in my forties, and with the help of my shrink I realized that I’d still been trying to process my mom’s death, trying to relive it, trying to come to grips with my loss.
Death was with me. And not just in my fear of losing those I cared about, but in my daily thoughts. All the abuse I suffered as a child, and the resulting depression (which I am fighting even now), cast my mind toward the darkness of suicide many times. And such thoughts have always been with me; my depression being what it is now, hardly a day passes without them.
But as the therapist who did the court psychological evaluation in my divorce pointed out, I always found a way not to kill myself, even when things were at their worst. Life always won. Hope, however dismally obscured by current trauma and hardship, prevailed. Otherwise I’d have been dead long ago, probably before I fled my father’s house.
And of course, once I became a daddy, suicide was off the table as an option, no matter how appealing it might seem at times. One of the first psychiatrists I talked to actually told me she thought becoming a father had saved my life. I love my son more than anything. Not only do I not want to miss out on any time I have with him, I don’t want him to face the deep agony of losing a parent as I did. Of course, many’s the day that he is the only reason I want to keep going…but he is reason enough.
My ex once (well, more than once) challenged my need to always see my son to the car and give him a kiss goodbye on the mornings she drove him to daycare. She didn’t understand why it was so important. But to me, every goodbye is vital because I know, on the deepest possible level, when someone leaves they don’t always come back.
I choose life, and love. But Death is always with me.