I was sitting at one of the classier bars on Estero Bay sipping a fancy glass of lemon infused water while yachts passed by. The five o’clock sun grazed the windows with sprinkles of light that danced upon the granite of the bar. The bar was in the tourist area of my hometown in Southwest Florida, taking up a portion of the lobby of the very expensive Hyatt Hotel. My former teacher and I, who savored her ten-dollar glass of wine, sat discussing my new fear. I remember watching the bartender pour red wine for another customer into a goblet, and then re-cork the bottle. The color of the wine must have reminded me of blood and I blurted out: “I’m afraid to die!” Over the last eighteen months, death had surrounded me, overwhelming my life. I had never before been afraid of death, now however, it consumed my every thought.
I sat with the woman who inspired me to move to New York and follow my dream of becoming a writer. Although I had seen her multiple times since I’d graduated, I hadn’t seen her speechless since my former peers spoke their illiterate minds in my AP English class senior year. I didn’t realize my comment would have that effect on her. Despite her front row view to all of the tragic events in my life, she knew that I held out for the good. I don’t think she was expecting me to say something of that nature about death. She knew what I had been through, what I was going through, but for her, it was never about the past, but reminding yourself to move forward.
Despite the former teacher-student relationship, after graduating, our bond had turned into a friendship. Ms. O’Donnell had watched me grow every year of high school, not as just a writer, but as a person. Every time I came home from New York for the holidays or to visit my family, we met. It’s a routine I expected; her advice didn’t just resonate with me, but often changed the way I approach events and obstacles in my life. I consistently walked away from our time together feeling like a stronger person.
She remained quiet for seconds, looking at me, gauging my reaction. I looked around the bar, watching the people surrounding us go on about life. There were men in suits and women in cocktail dresses, some laughing and some with their eyes glued to their phones. All of the twenty or so people at the bar seemed completely oblivious to the two women discussing death mere feet away from them. As I traced my finger over the lines of the gray granite bar a few times, she moved to pull out a small notebook and pen from her bag, taking up the chair next to her.
“Here. Take a few minutes and write down the reason or reasons why you think you’re afraid to die or of death.”
There was one specific reason: an all-consuming and vertigo-inducing thought. I was never afraid of death before a certain life altering event, but now, I see it around every corner. I felt it like a smothering effect, rather than a hug, like when a plane I’m on is taking off. I hear it in car horns sounding, a pretense to two enormous pieces of aluminum slamming together. I saw the metaphor of death looming all around me, but never directly in front; taunting me that it was always near, but reminding me that I would never know when it was to come.
I wrote down names of people and actions that could bring me closer to my end, but I eventually crossed them all out and looked at her. She knew I was struggling to create a concrete reason why I am afraid, a reason we would be able to discuss and work through so I could begin to move on. The reason was anything but concrete. She looked at me for another moment before speaking: “Lauren, death is a part of life, and to be scared of death, is to never live.” I smiled at her and looked down to my wrist. My right hand encompassed the tattoo that serves as a bracelet on my left arm that reads “My Brother’s Keeper / Joshua Michael / 02-26-1994, as I contemplated what she said. She asked me why, fourteen months after my brother’s death, I was suddenly afraid to die.
I think it’s more so my brother’s sudden death, than just simply his passing that spurred this thought to enter my mind. Although this conversation took place about a year and a few months after Josh’s motorcycle accident, I was only then in a place where I was ready to address this new factoid of my life. On the morning of March 14th, 2016, living in the college dorms in Manhattan my life was going on “normal.” I went to class that day, followed by work and got home around 11 followed by my head hitting the pillow and sleep consuming me.
Within 8 hours of falling asleep, blissfully ignorant to how much my life had already changed: I got the call and I boarded and de-boarded a plane where I landed in Florida feet away from where Josh’s motorcycle crashed on airport property. Once my family and I got through the “normalcies” that come with any loved one’s death: the service, the cremation, the calls to insurance agencies and former friends, I traveled back to New York to finish my Spring semester. Once I got back to New York, where the closest family I had was hours away, it was the feeling of isolation and loneliness that brought on the fear of death. After I had explained all of this to Ms. O’Donnell, we began to unpack my feelings of despondency. It’s not that I was being overly emotional, it’s more so that being terrified of death had become one of my main emotions.
I think it’s common for people my age to experience excessive amounts of emotion. I say people because at this point in my life, I’m not sure if I’m a child or an adult – but stuck in the limbo years where I still experience euphoric exhilaration and consuming sadness. I feel like an adult when I consider the amount of heartache I’ve been through, but I think of myself as a child when I’m attempting to buy beer under the legal drinking age. Adults that consider us “children” tell us we’re too sensitive and too emotional. But people my age consider our generation to be strong and assertive in our beliefs. In this moment, I was both child and adult. I was an adult sitting at bar discussing death as we continued to live, I was a child, sitting at a bar for people over twenty-one.
The last few times we met it was frequently at one of our local Starbucks that was half way between the two of us. We would often discuss one of the many topics she had a wide range of knowledge on, like a therapy technique known as “Bodytalk.” The last time we met, she explained to me the concept of Bodytalk and a therapists’ ability to understand one’s feeling through this technique. She told me:
“It combines wisdom, energy and clinical techniques to construct an accurate and skillful analysis of what your body is saying about your stress.”
After she went into more detail, I wasn’t sure I was convinced that this approach to therapy could be executed to a standard that would define my stress followed by an analysis of how I could get through that stress. However, what she did after, certainly convinced me.
“Sit forward with your hands on and elbows on the counter, uncross your feet, and close your eyes.” She told me. I did so with a small smirk on my face.
I don’t remember the exact details of the few minutes that followed; she asked me questions and instructed actions for me to perform like nod my head and wiggle my toes. I know it sounds slightly silly, but after those few minutes of movement, she told me to remain still and open my eyes.
She then preceded to close her eyes and do her own set of movements.
After about two minutes she opened her eyes and asked me how long I’ve had a thyroid condition. I’ve had an enlarged thyroid for my entire life and have taken medication for it for as long as I can remember. The impact of her question was jolting. I explained to her first my shock followed by my thyroid diagnosis.
She told me about a medication I should start taking and within 6 months or so, my thyroid had been at its most normal size. In this moment, at the bar, I was sitting there wondering if there was a way she could Bodytalk me out of my fear. There wasn’t. I felt as though in these last few months I had stopped living my life the way I had before. I was walking on eggshells in all parts of my life. I felt like a child scared of the monsters under my bed. But, in this case, I had monsters, real and very scary monsters.
After I explained to Ms. O’Donnell my thoughts of feeling child-like for being afraid of death, she explained to me:
“Everyone at some point in their life is afraid to die, or is afraid to see someone they love die. This is a part of life and all we can do is recognize death as a friend and welcome it when it comes, but until then, we must live.”
Did this mean that I was avoiding life? Was I turning corners with a wider radius? Was I seeking safer ways from Point A to Point B? I asked her,
“How do I welcome death when I haven’t even lived yet? I’m not ready to die. My parents can’t survive life without me.” I began tearing up thinking about my parents and how neither of us can afford to lose one another, not now and not for a long time.
She sat there rubbing my back and consoling me, while people at the bar watched me cry, most likely wondering what I was doing sobbing at a bar. I wiped at my tears with the 4×4 napkin that sits under every glass at a bar to catch the condensation sliding off. The already wet piece dampened my cheeks but still soaked up most of my tears. I lifted my head and looked at her. Her appearance told me she was comforting me without pity, and that’s why I looked up to her. She knew I didn’t need pity, I simply needed advice on how to continue. After a few moments of silence, while the bar continued to bustle around us, she said to me: “Lauren, death is like fog – it comes into our life briefly, obscuring our image of the world around us, but when it disappears, life becomes clear.”
It’s amazing how influential another human being can be on your life. Her words resonated with me while I shook from the impact of their meaning, Death was a part of my life briefly when my brother passed away; it was the recovery and the moving on that will be with me forever. Josh’s death was my fog, but once it cleared, I was able to see the light of the sun again, the light of the future. I was able to imagine moving on while keeping Joshua’s memory alive and moving beyond his death.
We sat for another hour or so discussing my summer plans and what my near future held. She then told me she needed to leave to meet her parents for dinner. We paid for our drinks and stood up. She looked at me with a warm smile and said, “You’ll get through the fog, Lauren. I have faith in you.”