I never told anyone this: in fifth grade, I passed out.
Sitting at a table that served as my desk, a snake of release that managed to be too warm and too cold at the same time climbed from my abdomen to my face. I felt separate from my body, not above it or to the side but no longer of it. I had the distinct impression that I had been here—wherever here was—before. My head slumped forward onto my arms and everything went black. I was aware of the blackness, but I can’t be sure if that awareness was in the moment or only because within a minute or two, all of my parts had re-coalesced and I had returned to consciousness. At the time, I was curious: what just happened? Where did I go? And then, an overwhelming sense of loneliness filled my core. I had exited from the world, even momentarily, and no one had noticed. No one had cared. No one but me had touched the blackness.
As lonely as that experience was—as frightening to think of it as an adult—I believe I passed out because my little ten-year old body and mind were so stressed, my soul gave me a respite. A taste of death without death. And at that time, I thought mostly of death. I lived every day simply and completely terrified of dying.
Fifth grade began in 1980, in the midst of the Cold War and on the cusp of the Reagan years. My teacher, Mrs. K., seemed old before her time. I remember a navy blue wool skirt and jacket, a ruffled collar, dried-out hair, lipstick that bled, and a smell of flowers—powdered, decaying and reminiscent not of nature but a laboratory. Mrs. K. was awful. Fatalistic. And obsessed with nuclear annihilation. She talked about bomb shelters. About how life would be completely and utterly destroyed. When we would leave school for the day, she would say things like, “See you tomorrow…that is if we make it through the night.” I had nightmares about nuclear war and so did many of my classmates. Parents called to complain. Near the end of the school year, Mrs. K. suddenly left. We kids joked that she had a butt rupture, which made us finally laugh as kids should. And we were thrilled by the vibrant, young substitute; that is, until following Mrs. K.’s curriculum, she showed us a movie about a film crew making a movie about nuclear war. At the end of the film, a siren rang out its warning. The director yelled, “Cut! I didn’t cue the siren yet.” And a sickening realization filled the set: this siren was the real deal; nuclear war was imminent. It was meant to be ironic and artistically macabre. The last image I remember is a group of people waiting for the nuclear bombs that would end their lives. The substitute teacher frowned and said, “Hmm.” We didn’t discuss the movie and she no longer followed Mrs. K.’s lesson plans. But the Fear had already been embedded.
The Fear was added to by my Catechism teacher that year. I remember nothing about the Bible or Catholicism. But I do remember horror stories of people being buried alive and coffins dug up with scratches on the inside of the lids. Of fingernails ripped and bloody from the panic of trying to get out of a premature tomb. Or stories of decay—of how that decay smelled and looked and what remained: putrid, green ooze. Occasionally, a completely intact body would be dug up smelling of roses and that, according to my teacher, was the mark of a saint. Of course, she saw no saints among me and my classmates. No, our deaths would be the oozing, gross kind.
Around this time, my great-grandfather died. At the cemetery, after the service, as the coffin was to be wheeled to its burial site for the comfort of sad eyes, my great-aunt threw herself across it and cried, “Daddy, don’t leave me!” Although other family members mocked her, my great-aunt’s despair opened me completely to the pain of loss. My great- grandfather’s death meant a hole was growing in the hearts of his loved ones.
John Lennon also died in the middle of fifth grade; which shouldn’t have meant much to a ten-year old girl save for the fact that he was my favorite Beatle. Actually, he was my mom’s favorite; and since Mom was my favorite, I adopted her likes as my own. And on December 8, 1980, when he was assassinated at the age of 40, my mom, sister and I prayed for him. With tears in her eyes, my mom then said, “Just as he was starting to finally get his shit together, he was killed.” My mother’s words, although innocent, cemented into a personal belief: once a person has success, once someone finally discovers her purpose in life and lives that life with a gratitude that transforms, then, what will happen is death. It became a fear: the closer I get to who I truly am just means that I am closer to dying.
Extinction, the horror of physical decay, the loss of love, and the loss of self: an onslaught of death revealed in all its forms in one short, stressful year of my life. Fifth grade influenced me in ways that still haunt to this day.
Once again, I find myself obsessing about death. Living with death. It’s the never-ending torment of 2012—of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Doomsday, solar flares, meteors, mini ice ages, global warming, implosions, explosions, alien invasions, biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare, economic panic, conspiracies, and terrorism—that infiltrates all media all of the goddamned time. I go to bed with visions of annihilation. I get knocked off my spiritual core; I forget my connection to the Divine because even if I turn off the television and radio and only check my e-mail, our planet’s destruction still forms the background noise of my life. I feel as if Mrs. K.—crazy, pessimistic Mrs. K.—is whispering in my ear all of the time telling me I won’t make it to the next day.
Death and all of its decay is on the news, TV, or in the road kill I see when I go for a walk or a drive. Just last week, in trying to get out of my head, a walk of less than a mile brought with it two dead opossum hit together; a turtle on its back and drying out of its shell; the still feathered wing of a hawk attached to its skeleton. I cried all the way home, unable to escape death.
Death is still in the loss of loved ones: my grandparents, my great aunt, two great uncles and my cat. This last decade, I’ve been saying goodbye to the touchstones of my life. As my family, friends and I age, there’s this sick sense that my goodbyes aren’t over. That they’ll never be over.
And finally, as I am becoming more of who I am—as I’m writing and teaching more, connecting with people and latching onto my purpose—I am scared that the other shoe will drop. That like John Lennon, I will finally get my shit together and then, I will die. It becomes a daily battle. I so desperately want and need to be myself, to embrace my reason for being; and yet, sometimes, my fear is so great that I will lose my life, that in my worst moments, I stop. I don’t self-sabotage, necessarily, but I stop. My whole being feels as if it is held in stasis.
This is no way to live. It’s one thing to be aware of death. It’s completely detrimental to entertain it like a houseguest. I am afraid of death. Despite becoming very close twice in my life, I have not accepted that someday I will cease to exist. That I will return to blackness. I can no longer live like this, with this incessant fear.
Maybe fifth grade holds the key. In all of that turmoil, I finally passed out…and perhaps passed into awareness. Perhaps I died for only a moment to be assured that I am meant to live. Without fear, I am meant to live.