I was 20 years old when I started watching her slip away.
Normally during the summertime, she would spend all morning and a large portion of the afternoon out in our garden, diligently tending to every last petal, stem and root. Her forehead would glisten with beads of sweat, but it never seemed to bother her; she seemed almost proud of it.
“Look, Ash!” she would yell from her knees, “Did ya see the size of this one?!” after which she would pop up with yet another tomato in hand, her eyes wide with childlike excitement.
The first week she came in early from the garden once or twice, claiming to be “wiped,” and would head straight for the sofa, book in hand.
The second and third week it was three or four days in a row, but by the fourth week, she didn’t go out much at all. By then, she wasn’t just tired, but had begun to complain about a stiff coldness in her feet, that soon expanded into her calves. In very little time, the problem got continually worse, until she was barely making it out of bed at all, unable to really walk without experiencing dreadful pain.
I would sit with her in bed, rubbing her feet to make them warm again, and then layering on not one, not two, but three pairs of thick, wool socks, topped off with baby blue-colored booties made of yarn. She described it as if her feet were constantly submersed in a bucket of ice water.
After jumping through numerous physician’s hoops, eventually I was able to get her an appointment with a specialist. At that point, I was in college an hour away in the closest major city, had to leave school, drive an hour home to pick her up, turn around and drive the hour back to the city where her doctors were, then turn back around and take her home, and then turn around once again to return to school for classes that evening.
I’ll never forget that day, because I was moody. I was impatient. I was uncompassionate. Insensitive. Icy. Cruel.
As she struggled with every bit of her last being to make it down the sidewalk, her legs giving out on her at a moment’s notice, I picked up my pace and walked faster, suddenly annoyed at the situation.
“Wait, Ash, I can’t go that fast,” she half-heartedly cried, as I stood at the door impatiently tapping my foot. Instantly my mind was filled with irrational thoughts. Perhaps she’s just exaggerating. Perhaps she’s just looking for attention. It’s as if I wanted to test her.
On the way out, after we learned that she not only needed to have surgery done on her legs, the result of blocked arteries, but beforehand she would have to have open heart surgery, I told myself to be more sensitive in that moment. To be more sympathetic. To be her daughter, for christ’s sake. Instead, I practically dragged her down the sidewalk to the car.
I look back on that day, and realize why I acted the way I did, in spite of my normally calm & caring personality:
I was scared out of my damn mind.
Inside, I was curled up like a little girl in a ball, looking out at the world with big, innocent eyes, scared of what the future held. Not only was I scared of losing her, but I was scared of what losing her would mean. It meant becoming an overnight adult. It meant selling houses. It meant auctioning furniture. It meant inheritance taxes. It meant lawyers. It meant dealing with the crazy neighbor across the street, who, a couple of months later, as I sat there in shock with the note from the coroner in my hand, knocked on the door and ever-so-politely told me that she came to take the Yankee candle that, she swore, my mom said she could have. Yes, that really happened.
But what it really meant, far beyond all of the trivial logistical details, was a deep-seated uncertainty.
It was an uncertainty about life, yet at the same time, a definitive realization. A realization that from that point on, I was entirely accountable for my well-being. There would be no hand-holding. There would be no gentle guiding. There would be no motherly suggestions. No annoying check-up phone calls.
And no sense of security.
And I’d never been more scared in my life.
Truthfully, that’s what fear is, isn’t it?
Fear happens when we don’t know what’s going to happen next. And if we don’t know what’s going to happen, then we can’t control it. And it makes us feel all sorts of anxiety, worry, and fear. At worst, it can completely paralyze us into inaction. At best, it might make us lash out at others, or be insensitive when we shouldn’t, for example.
At that time in my life, my mind couldn’t help but spin out of control, pondering all of the worst case scenarios and then—here’s the kicker—actually starting to convince myself that they would come to fruition. Surely I would become homeless, have to beg on the street, would be forced into prostitution and have to wear shimmery gold skin-tight dresses that didn’t go with my skin tone, and would eventually end up missing teeth before plunging to my death over the highest bridge I could find.
And we all do that when we get scared (well, maybe not the shimmery gold dress, though that fear is justifiable), whether we’ve had a major life crisis, or are worried about something like whether or not people will like our clothes, our decisions, our ideas—essentially, us.
Because of the lack of certainty and our insatiable human need for answers, we make them up instead. We imagine all of the possible outcomes, and then start to believe that—surely—the worst will likely happen. And then we fixate on it. And then it builds in our mind, until now the possibility has become a very real fear.
While fear is a natural human emotion, that doesn’t make it real.
What I mean to say with that is that emotions are, of course, real to us, but they don’t always reflect reality.
I once read somewhere that the only fears we are born with are the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises; the rest are socially constructed and learned fears over a period of time. Furthermore, the study noted that humans don’t just develop fears based on their own personal experience, but if they witness another human being having a negative experience, that fear is then also transferred over.
So now we’ve got all of our random negative experiences, that may or may not have just been a fluke, plus all of the random negative experiences of everyone we know or have seen on television or read about on the internet, all compiling to essentially make us a bunch of walking nutcases.
No wonder fear runs our lives.
And that’s exactly the point—we can’t let it.
If we make decisions based on ideas that aren’t even real, how sound a decision is that?