(Note: This isn't really my blog... This is just an assignment I had to write for my class in school. When writing for magazines, word-count is of the utmost importance, so it's important to be aware of it as you write. But how do you get across a feeling, an idea, or an experience when you have to do it in 1,500 words or less? It's hard...really, really hard, and word choice is crucial. So, because I am unable to blog the silliness I sporadically blog about, I figured I would post this. Hopefully, if anyone reads this, everything, or at least some of the things, I was trying to convey in this piece will come across the way they were meant to. (And if the message you get by the ending is that I'm a freak... wrong message!) Anyway, this is my Fear Factor...
Every Sunday night when I was around nine years old, I would start crying as soon as I went to bed. To this day, my mother still tells me how frustrated she was whenever she heard the whimpering coming from my room.
“What is it?” she’d ask when I’d peek through her bedroom door minutes later, rubbing the tears from my eyes.
“I don’t wanna go to school.”
“You have to.”
“It just comes into my mind that I do not want to go to school.”
And that’s what I said, verbatim, every week. I didn’t know why the thought of going to school on Monday mornings caused me so much grief and anxiety. But halfway through my favorite Sunday evening television show, The Jeffersons, I’d start feeling sad, and by the time Alice came on afterwards, I’d start monitoring the clock, counting the minutes until it would be over. When I finally turned off the T.V. to go to sleep, my eyes would get scratchy and begin to water.
It was only when I became an adult that my mother finally figured out the reason for my weekly crying jags. I had lost two relatively young grandparents when I was around five, the only uncle I ever knew when I was around eight, and the family dog (who’d been with my parents longer than I had), when I was nine. My mom’s theory that I was scared she might die while I was in school made sense and manifested in my Sunday night crying jags. Even if I couldn’t articulate it, the seed of fear had been sown in my mind. I somehow knew that a person didn’t have to be old and wrinkled in order to die, and that once you were dead, that was it. My uncle could never make me one of his toasted-bread-tuna-fish-and-lettuce sandwiches again; I’d never hear my dog, Kelly, howl from the sound of a passing police car’s blaring siren; and because I rarely saw them to begin with, I’d never remember what my grandparents’ voices sounded like.
That cluster of loss unfortunately was not the only one like that in my life. When enough years had finally passed to at least mellow my fears about death and loss, a friend of mine was killed while crossing the street on her bicycle, and a few years later, a boy from my high school died in a car crash. As all bad things happen in threes, or so it’s been said, my mother’s fifty-two year old best friend died right after I turned sixteen. What he figured was minor heartburn had actually been the beginning of a heart attack and he died that night. Death was neither choosy about age, nor its method, as I was learning, and its unpredictability was unnerving. How would these families ever survive?
In November 1989, my friend’s father, who was a cop, was killed on the job. I couldn’t imagine how he’d be able to go through life knowing his dad died by someone else’s hands until a month later when my own father never came home for dinner. He’d been late many times before, but my mother had never gone looking for him, until that night. My one sister had gone with her while my oldest sister and I remained home. The tension in the air between us while we waited wasn’t because of her usual disdain for my presence; it was caused by an unfamiliar worry. They seemed to be gone for a long time, as the store my father owned was only about seven minutes away, but for all I know now, it might have only been a few minutes since the anticipation of anything invariably makes time go by slower. When they finally did return, my mother must have been shocked into an eerie sense of calm when she rather neutrally announced, “Your father’s been murdered.”
We had no solid reason to think anything was wrong that night; we never received a phone call, nor had a grim-looking officer shown up at our doorstep informing us of bad news. The friendships the Freeport police had cultivated with my parents over the twenty-plus years they’d known them had indeed been in conflict with their duties as officers. It was only our mom’s sixth sense that something had happened to our dad that spurred her out the door that night. Her fears were confirmed when she saw police swarming the parking lot where my dad’s car was parked. My mother’s last vision of my father was his body slumped over the steering wheel in his car. We were later informed that after he had closed his store for the night and sat in his car waiting for it to warm up, someone shot him at close range. From what we were told, he must have seen the person, lifted his arm instinctively, yet uselessly, to protect himself, and the bullet hit the main artery to his heart, killing him instantly.
There was scarcely time to absorb what had happened as funeral arrangements had to be made within twenty-four hours, according to Jewish law. The funeral, however, was two days later, and I can only guess it had to do with the nature of his death. His extended family made all of the arrangements as best as they could to conform to the religious procedures of a faith we barely practiced because, “that’s what he would have wanted.” We were driven to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn where the women huddled together on one side, while the men prayed on the opposite side. We watched as an unadorned pine box was carried in by some of his cousins and his deceased brother’s sons, his body naked inside and wrapped in a religious shroud. The entire service was done in Hebrew, none of which we understood, and without emotion or consolation. When it concluded, we left the temple and stood in the middle of some street in an unfamiliar city. Because of a ridiculous rule that didn’t allow women at the cemetery, we were only allowed to watch as his body was driven away in a hearse. We never saw him; we never threw dirt on the grave after it had been lowered into the ground; we never said goodbye.
We grieved by instruction, not by individual need. Jews sit Shiva for a week and that’s what we did. We were told when to eat, how to accept visitors, where to sit, and not to answer phones or doors. The dictates of a religion I cared nothing about superseded how I needed to mourn. It was my loss; our loss; I wanted to be angry and hateful, eat when, or even if, I wanted to; I wanted to smoke a carton of cigarettes and crawl into bed. But even at nineteen, I knew life outside of my house on Ann Road still continued, and that I had no choice but to continue living, as well. I went back to my same job and my same college classes, although a slightly different person. I knew his death not only signified physical loss, but abstract loss: no cheesy father-daughter wedding dances; no more fishing trips; he’d never know his future grandchildren. I knew I’d be forced to grow up quicker by being forced into the working world, and out of the security of my former family life.
But there are more than just those losses. Although I’m no longer that child with normal fears about death, I’m now an adult with irrational ones. The first, most vivid memory of my life is when my mother told us my father was murdered. The second is the coverage from Channel 12 News. “Freeport Business Man Murdered,” some newsperson said, as cameras panned the image of my father’s dead body hanging out of his car, the Reebox on his feet my Chanukah gift to him a few days before. For a while after he was killed, I was scared and looked over my shoulder wherever I went; I became fearful of everything.
I attach extraordinary amounts of danger to the most ordinary things, and it not only applies to me, but to my children. I worry if they stand by a railing on the second floor at the mall because they could topple over and fall into the Koi pond below; a low-flying airplane means a crash is imminent and makes me wonder if I’m close enough that I’ll get hit with part of the wing; a jog over the Southern State parkway incites a panic that I might somehow stumble and fall over the surrounding fence and die a splattering death on the hood of a speeding Honda. I had never considered the possibility of a murder happening in my family, but because it did, it makes me believe something just as horrific is equally likely, and I unfortunately live my life waiting for it.