I’m 5 and 1/2, so I can walk to Betsy’s by myself. Two blocks on 55th, Wooddale to Oaklawn, then take a left. I know right away if he’s there –a big black dog whose people don’t keep him on a leash. The only other dogs I’ve met up until now are Betsy’s Scotties, so I don’t know breeds. If I had to guess? Werewolf. Maybe bear.
My uncaring mother is drinking Tab and doing a crossword back at the house. She’s off the hook: it’s 1978. Driving your almost-6-year-old three blocks so she doesn’t have to experience any discomfort or anxiety won’t be in fashion for another 20 years.
Sometimes the dog is outside, sometimes he isn’t. Not knowing is the worst part. Am I safe today? Will he watch me from the driveway, too stuffed with another neighborhood child to bother with me? Will he chase me all the way to 54th Street, which I’m not allowed to cross until Mrs. Burritt is supervising? I never know. Every trip is a hero’s journey.
But within a few years, the dog is the least of my problems. Mean-spirited kids love to see me cry. I flip out of my innertube one summer into the Apple River, get caught under the rapids, and glimpse Death skulking along the banks. Sometimes my dad doesn’t answer the phone and I ride my bike to his house from my mom’s to make sure he is not lying twisted at the foot of the stairs. For a long time, I have a permanent stomachache.
Fear is so familiar, such a lifelong companion of mine, I wonder if I would recognize myself without it. It’s a flame I carry from place to place, from year to year. I protect that flame, I nurture it. I don’t want to be caught unprepared.
There are no rules in this life …nothing I can perceive to govern us. We the People cannot govern us; God and Jesus, as good as They are, cannot govern us. We are ungovernable as long as we are this afraid. We can’t count on safety and we’re obsessed with it. Take your little peanut out of his NASA-grade carseat, wrap him in layers to maintain the proper body temperature, set him so gently in the grocery cart at Whole Foods with a cover over the handle so he doesn’t catch something from the other organic babies. Feed him quinoa, veggies from your CSA, no gluten or sugar. He can still get cancer, we all know it.
As long as I keep loving people –and I insist– there will always be more loss.
I have spent nights with my child at hospitals, I have sent her into brain surgery. How did I do that, being who I am? I remember the drive down to Mayo in the early-morning darkness. The ancient trees, who have seen everything, stood sentinel along the highway. The IV insertion was the usual hell with a toddler –tiny veins, deep breaths. When the anesthesiologist carried our little daughter out of the nurses’ station, my husband and I sat on vinyl chairs behind a thin curtain and cried like children.
Ten hours later, the surgeon crossed the waiting room with miraculous news: our baby’s tumor had peeled neatly away from the healthy part of her brain like an orange. I could show you exactly where I was standing, back by the vending machines, when I called my mom, weeping with relief, to give her the news. So much relief … and still so much fear, because I knew: this pain would not immunize me.
And it didn’t, or at least not for long. My mother, the one I called first after my daughter’s surgery, my invincible parent, developed a brain tumor too and hers killed her. Three years later, my dad succumbed to pancreatic cancer. As long as I keep loving people –and I insist — there will always be more loss.
It’s fair to be afraid, there’s plenty of good reason. I’m not afraid of dogs anymore, but other fears have replaced them: scoundrels in Washington, the tenuousness of human relationships, the fragility and the power contained in a single cell. I am afraid of political fault lines through families and old friendships, my penchant for dark thinking, attack on all fronts. I am afraid of losing my sight or having a heart attack or getting cancer when I have a lot of parenting left to do. I am afraid my voice isn’t as strong and clear as I would like it to be, that I give in where I should fight and fight where I should give in. This is not an exhaustive list.
It’s so tempting, isn’t it, to dissolve into this anxiety, to turn back and run home. It’s tempting to crouch on your side of the wall, arranging and engineering the trivial while ignoring the essential: there has never been and never will be an assurance of safety. I want us all to radically accept that so we can take reasonable measures and let the rest go. So we can be there for each other, all of us humans. Our connection has always been our best protection.
At some point, there is so much to be afraid of that there is nothing to be afraid of and then you can go anywhere you want, ready or not. The flame I have carried from year to year, place to place, which I believed was fear, isn’t fear. Fear is the not knowing, the threat, the separation. Fear is the protections I have always counted on now ebbing away. The flame …is something else. Resilience? Defiance? I don’t know, but I’m still here.