I almost flunked grade four because I couldn’t finish Tuck Everlasting. The book terrified me. The main character Winnie (later played by Alexis Bledel—I heard, I couldn’t watch the movie) was given the choice to live forever, or continue to age, live a human life of growth, love and loss, and, yes, eventually die. Winnie chose the latter. My 10-year-old self was like, nope, not mature enough for this discussion. And I stuffed the book deep in the back of my desk, hoping all thoughts of death would stay buried with it. My book report dead(gasp!)line came and went, and I acted like Mariah Carey in 2014:
Fuck you, Ms. Nelles, and, while we’re at it, fuck you too, Natalie Babbitt. I had always been an excellent student, and I never ‘fessed up to why I really fell behind.
Even before grade four, I was a kid for whom thoughts about death triggered panic attacks (but back then they were called “tantrums”). I once screamed at my older brother for bringing up death, something I could never un-know because I have “a good remembering brain!!!”
I remember another particularly vivid episode taking place on the kitchen floor. My dad tried to interrupt my crying and screaming with, “can I tell you one good thing about death?” What? “You get to be with God and Jesus!”
In no way did I find this comforting.
Twenty-some years later I attended a conference in the graduate program of English Literature at Dalhousie University called “(De)composing Death.” I spent most of it thinking aw, what a quaint discipline English Literature is, but came away having had some deeply stirring conversations, most of which I contribute to performance artist lo bil (http://lo-bil.tumblr.com/). As lo bil philosophized at Dalhousie, “if we won’t think about our death, then we can’t think about our life.”
My fear of death has always been with me. It is the root of my anxiety. It drives my to-do list, my need to set and accomplish goals. It’s what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me awake all through November, crying. It might be why the sight of blood petrifies me, why I’ve considered the viability of wearing a helmet everywhere I go.
My discomfort with death, or perhaps more accurately, with the briefness of life, also drives me to stop and check in with myself once in a while: is this really how I want to be spending my time? It’s what moved me to tears thinking about the miracle of bodies, of touch, and of language as I floated in a salty decompression tank around my last birthday, in a room so dark my eyes reinvented colours. It is what has made me fall in love so deeply since I was 18 and in love for the first time with a Sagittarius. It is what made me realize the only thing that matters is our relationships with each other; that the miracle of being human is that we can touch and feel: when we are only stardust, how will you know that I love you?
My fear of death makes me realize what a miracle existence is, what inspires me to walk around rainy parks in the fall, tearing up in awe of how lush and beautiful the world can be. It’s what makes me take a deep breath with my eyes closed like I’m John Travolta in Michael, the 90’s movie about the archangel’s last visit to earth that deeply disturbed my childhood death-phobia. “I’m going to miss everything so much,” he says.
It is what’s made my hungover ass cry on New Year’s Day watching Hook (okay, I shouldn’t be allowed to watch 90’s movies), thinking about how wise the lost boy sounds when he concludes, “that was a great game.” What a great metaphor for life! I would have said, if I wasn’t sobbing too hard to make words. I hope that is what I, too, am saying at the end.
My fear of death drives me towards life, actually, more like sends me hurdling, nay, catapulting toward it with open arms, chasing it like, I’m going to live the shit out of you! Although I’d like to wear a helmet while doing it! It’s what makes me want to surround myself with people who feel the most, too—why I don’t think I’ll ever live with a “life natural” again, why my Tinder bio says “preference for water signs.” Like Winnie, I have found I’d rather take the unforeseen messiness and unknown pain of living and dying than hum along forever. As much terror as it brought me as a child, I can understand her choice now—what it feels like to be afraid of death, but still want to die.