La terreur de la mort

La mort.

The words roll off my tongue slowly as I whisper out loud.

The emotion that follows is strange to observe as it ripples through my body, giving me the tiniest of goosebumps. It is different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It brings with it layers of crippling sadness, uselessness, worthlessness. It holds a peculiar sense of hope.

Suddenly I am keenly aware of every part of me. My heartbeat is steady and regular, and I feel warm rushes of blood pulsing down my arms and legs. I curl my fingers and toes, letting the stretch overwhelm my nerves. I swallow, noticing it effect on the rest of my body. More than ever before, I feel the very essence of my humanity. The system that holds me together. End the system, end me.

Disappear. God, what would that be like? I remember being very young and sitting at the dinner table with my parents, a rush of panic enveloping my tiny body as my trembling voice avowed that I would never die. My father laughed; my mother looked at me with sadness and wisdom in her eyes as she told me that I didn’t have a choice. Everybody died, sooner or later.

Later, I was on a road trip with my family, driving through someplace flat in the midwest. I can’t tell you where we were going. It was sunny and warm and I sat comfortably in the back seat of the minivan, letting the rays of light glow on my smiling face. We were listening to a CD I had just gotten from a friend – I think it was Martina McBride. The song that reverberated from the speakers was a cheerful mix of strings and drums and twangy vocals, and I was humming along as my father tapped the beat on the steering wheel. And suddenly I felt it again. My heartbeat quickened and crescendoed until it overpowered the music; my skin became hot and itchy and I was suffocated by anxiety once more. This was it. I was trapped inside this human body, and one day this human body would grow old and die and disintegrate – and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I was a pretty fatalistic kid, I suppose.

I kept thinking about it from time to time as I grew older, always accidentally. I would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, when I was jarred awake by the fleeting thought of my demise. Sometimes I would roll over and try to ignore it; other times I would simply get out of bed and pace around my room a few times until my nervous system stopped going haywire. But the thoughts, however short-lived, always brought with them the kind of fear that only death could bring me, a painful and anesthesizing feeling that left me cold and out of breath and paralyzed. It was torture.

My parents are very religious people, so the few times I tried to talk to them about my preoccupation with the macabre they brought in God. They told me about how even though my body would eventually cease to exist, my soul would live on in heaven with Jesus. It was such a nice thought. I remember daydreaming about what heaven would be like if it was just a bunch of souls without bodies. How would we recognize people? What did a soul look like separate from its body? Do souls not take up space like bodies do – and if they do, how big is heaven that it can fit every person that’s ever lived and died?

I wanted to believe my parents were right. After all, every kid wants to be able to trust their parents implicitly. But my hope that maybe they could be was overwhelmed by the fear that they were not.

Sometimes, I would forcefully shove thoughts of death out of my head the second they arrived, but they always came back with a vengeance. Other times I would actively try to convince myself that I believed in the afterlife and everything would end happily, but doubts always set in soon after. Still other times I would simply allow myself to feel the panic coursing rougly through my veins, taking over my bodily processes, until it passed on its own – only to return a little later.

Nothing has ever terrified me like the unavoidability of death.

I’m going to have to face my mortality sooner or later.

I close my eyes and inhale deeply, feeling the spindly fingers of oxygen reaching into the furthest corners of my body. Breathing feels good. There is comfort in the gentle in and out. I am safe.

For now.

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