Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Only Thing to Fear

Little Babe stood in the doorway of our bedroom calling to me in a stage whisper.

Mom! Mom!!!”

It was the Friday night that capped a week of endless workdays, and now sleep – overdue and entitled -- gripped me like a possessive husband. I was drugged with exhaustion, glued to my dreams but my maternal instinct proved too strong. My eyelids parted like heavy drapes. I turned my face to the door. Seeing me, Little Babe closed the door in back of him and tiptoed to my side of the bed.

Mom,” he said, leaning in towards me, sitting on the bed. “Mom, I’m scared…but I don’t know why.”

“C’mere,” I mumbled, my mouth refusing to cooperate with my wish to comfort my frightened child. I pulled back my blankets and Little Babe slid gratefully inside, molding himself to my left side. I pulled the blankets over the two of us and felt him trembling.

“Wazzamatta?” I asked, stroking his head. I heard his teeth chattering. Outside the room I could hear the voices of his sleepover buddies – all three of them. Turning to the right, I found the digital display of the alarm clock.


It was too late for Little Babe to be awake. It was too soon for me to get pulled from sleep.

“I don’t know,” said Little Babe between chattering teeth. “We started talking about death and what happens after you die and I suddenly got all hot and cold and scared and shaky.”

Shhhh,” hissed HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) grumpily from beneath twenty layers of blanket. “Shhh yourself!” I snappishly muttered. Jeez. If you’re not gonna be the go-to parent, the least you can do is be an uncomplaining member of the support staff. After all, no one is interrupting your sleep with talk of death fears.

“I don’t know why I’m so scared,” Little Babe repeated. “But I just started feeling really strange….”

“Anxiety attack,” I interrupted my small son, speaking so incoherently that the word banana came out of my mouth instead.

“What??” he asked, his body still humming, but a bit less so. HOBB grumbled in his sleep. Alfie the Pomeranian trotted out of the closet and arrived bedside, peering up inquisitively into our midnight tete-a-tete.

“Hey, look,” I told Little Babe, now fully awake. “Alfie knows you’re upset. He’s here to comfort you!”

Instinctively, we looked towards HOBB whose back was turned to us. HOBB had outlawed Alfie’s ability to be on our bed. Naturally, I defied this edict at every turn. When HOBB was not home, Little Babe and I were in the habit of jumping on the bed and inviting Alfie to join us in a big snuggle, which always ended with him licking the insides of our ears and thoroughly grossing us out.

It was too tricky to include Alfie into our family snuggle right now, so I just patted his little blond head, then turned my attention back to Little Babe, who had lowered his hand for Alfie to lick.

“An anxiety attack is when you get scared about something and your body reacts in a fight or flight way.” I could hear Little Babe listening. “Nature gave us a superpower, which is adrenaline, in case we need to run away from bears or lions or whatever. But sometimes, even when the bear or lion isn’t there but the fear is – and we aren’t using the adrenaline running away – we get an anxiety attack.”

I was impressed at my ability to give a biology lesson in the middle of the night. So, evidently, was Little Babe. At least, the trembling in his limbs stopped.
“They were talking about what happens to your body after you die and being buried and where your soul goes,” he said. “It just began to freak me out.”


Little Babe and I looked it up a month ago when we were surfing the web in search of strange fears. Among the laughable (to our minds, at least) phobias were aeronausiphobia – fear of vomiting secondary to airsickness; aulophobia- fear of flutes; coprastasophobia- fear of constipation; Dutchphobia- Fear of the Dutch; hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia- fear of the number 666; lutraphobia- fear of otters; octophobia - fear of the figure 8; pentheraphobia- fear of mother-in-law; Walloonphobia- fear of the Walloons; and that classically inexplicable phobia -- zemmiphobia- fear of the great mole rat.

But other phobias seemed reasonable. Such as trypanophobia- fear of injections or spheksophobia- fear of wasps. Or thantaphobia -- fear of death. Thantaphobia hardly seemed like it deserved to be lumped in with phobias.

Who was not afraid of death? Wasn't the absence of a fear of death more of a pathology?

It strikes some of us sooner and deeper. One of my earliest memories is that of crying bitterly at the concept of my own non-being and my mother attempting to comfort me by painting a picture of a parallel universe: a heaven that included our house with all the furniture and toys intact and every member of the family in a neighborhood that looked exactly the same.

I remember nodding and sniffling, wishing to be reassured, failing, feeling like I was falling into an abyss.

What could be more human, more central to the human condition than the fear of death?
Wilbur’s hysterical cry, “But I don’t want to die!” in Charlotte’s Web goes straight to the heart of the matter. Whenever I contemplate the prospect of imminent death, I am certain that I would never be among the noble ones who greet the end with stoic dignity.

Instead, I envision myself like Wilbur the Pig, crying, “But I don’t want to die!!” snot and tears running down my face, making noise, screaming even, grasping onto a banister, an ankle, a tree, refusing to let go.

Big Babe was hit with severe fears of dying when he was four years old. About half an hour after I put him to bed, he used to call for me from his room, first faintly, then more vociferously. When I arrived in his room, I would invariably find my child pale and wide-eyed with fear. “I started thinking about it again,” he would inform me and we would talk about it until he fell asleep. A few years later, he became obsessed with the words “Game Over” on video screens and formulated his concept of death around this.

We sent Middle Babe to a therapist when she was ten after her teacher reported that she seemed obsessed with death. What occasioned her obsession was the fact that her beloved Grandpa Marvin had just died. Middle Babe reluctantly went to the therapist – whose wandering eye and West End Avenue hippie d├ęcor distracted her – for exactly two visits before she informed us that she wasn’t obsessed, merely sad.

Fear of our mortality seems so natural to our humanity that the consciously-dying among us need to be given special kudos. My late mother-in-law Judy summoned us to a bedside “living will” chat when she was at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, letting us know her dying wishes. The beautiful, gifted and expressive Shira Ruskay invited friends and family to healing services led by the singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman and I marveled as Shira wept openly, knowing this was her leave-taking. Rifka Rosenwein wrote about her terminal cancer and what it meant to know that her death would leave three young children motherless.

I am breathless with awe in the face of this bravery.

“Mom,” said Little Babe, yawning as he stretched out beside me. “Can I stay here a little bit?”

I scuttled over, closer to HOBB who slumbered deeply, a log fallen in the forest of sleep. “Yes,” I said, fully awake now, my mind racing to recreate the scene that unfolded in my living room, the conversation between four pre-adolescent boys on a Friday night on death and dying.

Among the four boys was a child of a prominent family whose uncle was killed in a freakish accident a few years earlier and who just lost an aunt over the summer. Over Shabbat dinner earlier in the night, the child had made an off-hand allusion to “people dying” in his family.

HOBB and I exchanged glances; we were friendly with his grandparents, the parents of the young man who had been killed, the in-laws of the young mother who lost her battle with cancer.

Did this child, whose family the Angel of Death had recently stalked, initiate the midnight conversation? Or did the subject arise as it inevitably did after the telling of ghost stories late at night during a sleepover?

The world of Little Babe and his friends is indeed more death-saturated than even that of his older siblings. My own childhood and early-adolescence seem like a Disney dream by comparison, sheltered and sequestered from such monstrous realities as suicide bombings, terrorist seiges of schools, videotaped decapitations, pictures from executions by hanging, war casualties, AIDS, the memory of 9/11.

Outside of the warmth of my bed, the wind from the Hudson whipped the west-facing windows that overlook the Columbia campus. Alfie the Pomeranian had settled down bedside, vigilant and protective, curled up atop my discarded sweatshirt, breathing in the scent of his beloved humans.

Beyond my bedroom, Little Babe’s friends spoke into the night, their voices growing fainter as the minutes ticked past. Snuggled next to me, now breathing evenly, was their 11-year-old host, deeply asleep.

There are boys who fear ridicule, there are boys whose worst nightmare is to appear soft or babyish or uncool or tethered to their mothers. Little Babe is not cut from that cloth. His biggest fear – at the moment – is fear of death. And the comfort for this fear is not to be found within the depiction of a parallel universe, a celestial apartment overlooking the campus of Columbia university inhabited by the ghost version of our family, but in the heaven of the present moment, the tangible reality, his trust, my love, the warmth beneath the blankets.

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