Thursday, November 6, 2008

Thirteen and Mortal

It was the summer of 1987. At thirteen, there was not much for me to do aside from having the occasional friend over, completing my assigned summer reading for school, and watching television. One of the television shows I watched religiously was A Current Affair (not to be confused with the Australian program by the same name). A Current Affair was a New York based, television tabloid show that focused on scandals. Unsolved murders and celebrity deaths were a regular topic on the program, but the Summer of 1987 was an unusually popular season for death. That's because August of 1987 marked the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death (August 16) as well as the 25th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe (August 5).

Every weekday I watched this program. It seemed there was an endless amount of stories to report about Elvis or Marilyn: how lonely they were in life, how they both tried to reduce their emotional pain with drugs, superficial relationships, and material possessions. Both their lives ended in despair, as neither felt truly loved. Yet they both left behind millions of adoring fans who continued to grieve over their loss years after they passed. I was captivated by these stories. My interest soon grew into an obsession. Before long, I had posters of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo all over my bedroom walls.

I began the eighth grade that September. I continued to watch A Current Affair after school, and within a few weeks into the school year, I was faced with a frightening realization: I am going to die one day.

One night I had gone to bed and it just hit me. My life is going to end, just like everyone else who came before me. As I lay quietly in my bed, I suddenly became very aware of the sound of my own heartbeat. I imagined my heart stopping one day, my skin growing cold, and my body being placed in a coffin. I imagined the sound of dirt being shoveled on top of the coffin. It was dark. I would never see the sunshine again. My skin would rot, my hair would fall out. I envisioned worms crawling through my eye sockets and nasal cavity. I reasoned with myself that when I die will not be conscious of these things; that I was only feeling frightened because I was imagining my burial as though I were being buried alive. But it didn't help. I was scared. I did not want to die, but worse, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop the process.

I was literally paralyzed with fear the entire night. It felt as though there was a crushing weight on my chest and I could not breathe. I just remained on my back, staring at the ceiling, my arms pressed tightly to my side, and I stayed that way until morning. I was too tired to go to school that day, but I had no choice. So first period, I found myself in P.E. class.

My teacher came over and tried to help, but all I could manage to tell her was, "I'm going to die! I'm going to die!"As I exited the locker room, I looked across the gymnasium at my classmates practicing basketball drills. Suddenly, an intrusive thought entered my mind: "One hundred years from now, not one of these children will be here anymore." I imagined the gymnasium suddenly empty, the bouncing basketballs abandoned on the floor. The fear gripped me again, and I started to panic. My fear gave way to uncontrollable sobs and I started hyperventilating. A classmate asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't answer. My teacher came over and tried to help, but all I could manage to tell her was, "I'm going to die! I'm going to die!"

I don't remember how I got to the nurse's office. I just remember lying there paralyzed again. It was not long before I heard the sound of my mother's voice consulting with the school nurse. The nurse told me that my mother was taking me home. I was glad to be able to process this a bit with my mom. But once we got in the car, my mother became very angry with me.

"What is wrong with you?" she screamed. "You're thirteen years old and you're acting like a baby! Do you have some kind of mental problem?"

"No, mom." I squeaked.

"Well do you want everyone to think you have a mental problem?" she asked.

"No." I whispered.

"Then knock it off! Don't you dare embarrass this family!"

Before you think my mother was horribly cruel in her reaction, there is something you need to understand about Italian-Americans. We do not air our dirty laundry outside the family. (This blog, and especially this story, is an extreme violation of this cultural code of honor.) We also have a tendency to ignore problems within the family, hoping they'll just smooth out on their own. It is all part of fare bella figura, which basically means "to create a beautiful figure (or image)". We will knock ourselves out to present an overdeveloped facade to outsiders. We are a proud people. We don't want anyone to think we have any problems.

I went home that day and stuffed my feelings down as far as I could, but they kept resurfacing. In public, I was a happy, well-adjusted child. But privately, I was hiding a secret from everyone: I was mortal, I knew it, and I was terrified.

In hindsight, I now know that what I had experienced that day was a series of severe panic attacks. Obviously, this is not the end of the story, but allow me to end here for today to reflect upon my favorite, most cherished psalm, Psalm 116.

Praise be to One who conquered the grave; who died that I may live.

2 comments:

Natasa said...

I that age I was thinking what is the best way of dying...

Rita Martinez said...

"I was literally paralyzed with fear the entire night. It felt as though there was a crushing weight on my chest and I could not breathe. I just remained on my back, staring at the ceiling, my arms pressed tightly to my side, and I stayed that way until morning."
My friend this is exactly what happened to me...I realized one day, I think it was during 2005, that I was going to die and the thought of frightened me. I was in bed already sleeping and I dreamed that I was going to die and after death there was nothing, no world, no home, no people, not anything, it was over. I woke up that night in panic, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't even close my eyes, I didn't sleep. This happened several times before...
and I know what you mean about not airing dirty laundry...we're no Italians but my family sure does go by that "fare bella figura" modus vivendi.