Death and the Old Year


2013 nears death. Not that our calendar rules the world, but it is the way I measure time thanks to happenstance of birth.

Death was nagged at me a great deal this year. A cancer diagnosis and a heart condition will remind anyone of mortality. I feel lucky to be alive.

How old were you when you first realized you were going to die one day? Really understood. I must have known about death early on. At least when a man on a motorcycle shot and killed our dog, I learned that things can die, that death was a thing. I was about three.

My great uncle died in his sleep when I was about eight. After that I began to consider my parents could die, and this would keep me up at night. My mother’s brother died in a car crash before I was born, but my mother missed him so much, she was disappointed that I wasn’t a boy she could name after him.

A few posts ago I wrote about the man looming over me as I slept. It was the sumer before I started 8th grade. And when I woke to see a stranger near me in the dark, I did think, “I’m going to die.” I kept my eyes half shut and stayed still, pretending to sleep, but my mind latched on to the idea that I was about to become a missing child, a picture on a flier, a story on the news.

I remember this moment every time a murder flashes across the news. I remember the thoughts that went through my mind, and I wonder if the latest victim had similar thoughts, I’m going to die and no one is going to save me.

Dark thoughts, but true all the same.

Only I was lucky. I got away.

For years afterwards I told people about the man who tried to break into our house to steal our television set. That’s what I told myself and my friends. “He must’ve been so surprised to see me sleeping there!” I said.

But always one detail bothered me. There were several details that didn’t fit the burglar narrative–that he didn’t take off as soon as he saw me, that he didn’t try a window in the living room instead–but only one detail really twinged my thoughts. He’d taken the tie backs off my curtains. Why would a burglar remove the tie backs? It never made sense to me.

If you read my earlier post then you know that a few months later a classmate of mine was murdered, abducted from her home, raped, strangled, and thrown off an overpass. My burglar and her murderer became forever linked in my mind.

However, it may well be my writer’s imagination. But I still felt lucky.

Years later in the Peace Corps, I was traveling alone on an overnight train. A train conductor harassed me. When he touched my face and hair, I looked out the window. It was pitch dark. We were traveling through countryside. He could’ve thrown me off the train and no one would have known. I was alone in the compartment and the only woman in the entire train car. My father, I thought, will never know what happened to me.

But I told the conductor that I had a husband and a baby (lies at the time!), and he believed me. For whatever reason, telling him I had a baby waiting for me, changed his demeanor. He backed off and left me alone.

I felt very lucky I’d bought a ring back in Istanbul. He believed that it was a wedding band.

Don’t we all have those moments in our lives that we look back on and think, “Wow. I was lucky nothing really bad happened.”

That time being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a drunk driver. That time being alone lost at midnight in a dodgy part of Budapest. That time a man followed me from the bus stop to my apartment. That ob/gyn who said that if I’d given birth to my son a generation or so back in time, I’d probably have died.

Now this year I’ve been thinking about luck and death. Morbid thoughts. It’s hard to sit through talks with surgeons and oncologists about percentages and long term outcomes and not think about dying, even when your prognosis is good.

A couple weeks ago my husband said something about his life insurance. I laughed. “I’m the one who has a heart condition and cancer. I don’t think it’s your life insurance we need to worry about.”

I can’t say I live every day as if it were going to be my last. That would be insane. I still have bills to pay and a kid to get to school. But every day I am glad to be here. walking across a parking lot I find myself thinking about the breeze against my skin and how wonderful it is and that one day the breeze will be blowing but I won’t be around to feel it. Sometimes I hear people complaining about some slight or another, I want to say, “Have you felt the air on your skin lately?”

Or appreciated the way late afternoon light shimmers through the trees?

Or any number of things that we take for granted.

This time last year I was waiting for the results of my first biopsy. I’d been reassured by several doctors that probably everything was fine. The chances of there being anything (Everyone said the word anything. No one said the word cancer.) was remote. “We’re just taking precautions!”

Well. I was surprised on January 31st of 2013 to get my first cancer diagnosis. I was even more surprised to be told a month later that I actually had two types of breast cancer. I didn’t even know that was possible.

Oh, have I learned a lot this past year. Have you? What did you learn in 2013 that you never expected?

And now 2014 approaches, and I wonder, what will it bring?

2 thoughts on “Death and the Old Year

  1. I did a lot of things in 2013. I travelled abroad three times, twice to the Far East. But one thing takes precedence. In July I attended a writing course. In one of the sessions, amongst a list of questions, my answer to one question sticks out. “What did you learn from your parents?” “I learned to be afraid of what other people think of me.” That taught me so much. Wishing you a happy 2014!

    1. That was an excellent question. I hope you’ve learned to be less afraid of what people think. It seems you have. At least from what little I know.

      Good luck in 2014! Hope you get to travel more, write more, and do something unexpected (in a great way).

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