memoir, writing

A Matter of Life and Death

My father died on this day in 1981 when I was ten years old. It was of course a shock, but it was not a surprise. My earliest living memory is of visiting him in hospital after he’d had a heart attack. I guess I was about three, and what I remember about it is not any concern for him but rather that I was being a difficult child. Two scenes flash like channels on a TV: the first is of me refusing to go into what I don’t understand to be an elevator, and the second is of me throwing a tantrum when I think the blanket on his hospital bed is my own sook blanket.

There’s another memory scene back at home, sometime after that hospital episode, where Mom explains that I need to be a good girl so Dad doesn’t have another heart attack. Shock can make anyone step out of line in one way or another.

I was in my late 20s, making small talk with someone I didn’t know well and trying to keep the mood light and fun, and I made some careless comment about being a good little girl because my father had a heart condition. I said it with that slippery wit I sometimes slap around, and the moment I said it I heard that piece of my life’s truth for the first time. I wanted to apologize to the person I was speaking to for having said something so dark. I saw in that moment the full weight of responsibility that my child self had been lugging around, to believe that my behaviour was a hinge upon which my father swung between life and death.

Just six months ago, I had a panic attack after a conversation with my sister. I thought I’d made her angry and didn’t know how to make it right. I didn’t quite know how I’d made her angry. In fact, I might not have made her angry at all but only thought I had. Whatever the case, our conversation sent me into a swirl of anger and fear, the classic fight or flight surge of adrenaline, and all because I thought I might have displeased someone.

It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this visceral reaction. I would say most of my waking life I’m monitoring the folks around me for signs of discomfort, displeasure, annoyance, disharmony, or pain of any kind. It’s an exhausting kind of narcissism, this belief that I am responsible for maintaining the blood pressure of everyone around me. In my late 40s I’m just coming to realize that, when I think I’ve misbehaved, my body sometimes responds as if someone is about to die.

I began travelling out of curiosity, not as a means of escape. But these few years have helped me to recognize this spanner in my emotional works. A hospitalization and a hacked bank account happening far from home have shown me that I am in fact pretty steady at handling real problems, and that has helped me to recognize my unhealthy panic responses, when they happen, for what they are. I think one of the reasons this itinerant lifestyle suits me so well is that the distance from home enables me to let myself off the hook from that sense that I have to be a good girl. It’s not about moral abandon or licentiousness; I’m the same person in Cyprus as I am back home, but I’m able to breathe easier just being myself.

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