When one has survived a tragedy, anxiety becomes the norm.
I'm stirred out of sleep with a phone call. I don't answer in time — and a voicemail message is not left. Not recognizing the number, a Google search reveals it's a hospital near the Milwaukee home I share with my husband, Tony.
My mind swirls with possibilities. Was he in a car wreck? Did he suffer a heart attack? I glance around the dark hotel room in Washington, D.C. where my best friend sits in the glow of her laptop while her two kids are fast asleep.
I frantically punch the hospital’s numbers into my cell phone. The woman who answers staffs the switchboard and has no idea why I'm calling or who called me.
“Do you have an appointment with us?” she inquires.
“No, I just got a call from this number and am returning the call,” I say.
“Must have been a wrong number,” she replies.
I hang up and call Tony. He picks up. Relief washes over me. Still in the throes of sleep and in a deep fog, I clumsily explain that I thought something terrible happened to him.
"Nope, I'm right here, upstairs, with the windows open and surfing the computer," he says.
My 49-year-old husband is perfectly healthy. He practices yoga every Tuesday, walks the dog several nights a week, zips around town on a bicycle, and eats a handful of almonds daily.
But what haunts me is the possibility he could die. This is not based on his medical chart. Annual doctor visits show nothing but gold stars. I'm just afraid my husband will die.
It’s because my father died at 45. As a 20-year-old woman, I was on the cusp of my college career, plotting out all the steps to my dream job and scoping out potential Mr. Rights.
One unseasonably warm May night my mother, father, and brother all went to bed in our tiny Chicago suburb. The windows were probably open a crack. I was 73 miles south, in a larger Chicago suburb, snug in my sophomore year at college, probably giggling with girlfriends while sipping a can of beer, my biggest concern what cute skirt I might wear the next day.
But instead of a cute skirt, I wore a flowing black skirt and black, clunky clogs as I sat stunned in my family’s crowded living room. The screen door flapped open and closed several times an hour, each time someone new came through.
My father had collapsed and died that morning at the finish line of a 10K road race. Like my husband, he was healthy. He only ate egg whites, ran a slew of marathons. He was a respectable 145 pounds.
But in our living room, on the night of his last race, he wasn’t celebrating another success. Instead, my childhood best friend’s father stumbled over the stoop and threw me into his arms. My mother’s co-workers, who I’d never met, engaged in small talk and made sure everybody had a glass of water or cup of hot tea.
It was surreal that only a few hours earlier, my mother, brother, and grandfather burst into the rambling blue home where I lived with girlfriends near campus.
The news landed in an odd way. I knew he was dead. I just didn’t feel anything. I packed up a bunch of black clothes into a suitcase. It wasn’t until a week later that it registered: we were now a family of three and my mother had lost her husband.
When my anxiety about dying — either me or those in my life — goes deep, I find myself unable to sleep, watching my husband while he sleeps beside me. I watch his chest as it rises and falls, relieved each time it does.
If he is an hour late coming home and has not called, I assume the worst, clicking through headlines on the local newspaper’s website for news of a car accident. I insist he wear a helmet when bicycling. I want a text to know when, on an icy, snowy morning, he gets to his office safely.
Once, when he arrived 40 minutes late back to our home, I paced for 20 of those minutes. Had he been in a car accident? Would he ever come home again?
This anxiety about death lives in me, too. I have suffered through panic attacks and physical symptoms of anxiety at the littlest, everyday things, like a racing heartbeat or an itchy scalp. On the plus side, my father’s unexpected, premature death has taught me to live with greater intention.
Being aware of the fact that people can, and do, die young, I don’t invest time in friendships that suck my energy and if I make a goal, I immediately work toward it. If I also die in my 40s, will I do so having lived a good life? This has become my mantra.
In my delirium and fear, I have also walked through the steps of how I might handle my husband’s death, the nuances of what I will do for the memorial service and funeral, how I will go on.
Fortunately, I have come to what I hope is the eventual conclusion should I become a young widow: I have a circle of loving, supportive friends around me, prepared to help me fight the same journey my mother did at the age of 44, just four years older than I am now.
As a travel writer, I’m expected to roam the globe, which I do about twice each month. Never has the pull of home and travel been as strong since my wedding day two years ago.
It was easy to leave home when I lived alone. Now, I’ve got a new husband, a healthy husband who adores me. What if this is the last time he drives me to the airport? Do I really need to check into that chic Costa Rica jungle lodge and find out why honeymooners need to go there now? Is yet another trip to a wine region in France worth it? What if I can’t make it home in time to say “goodbye” if he, unlike my father, is hospitalized for a spell before slipping into the darkness of death?
Once I start down this spiral of thinking, the mind becomes more like a rabbit hole, intent on attracting the worst possible scenarios. It is physically and emotionally exhausting.
Recently, as I locked the back door of our house, suitcase in one hand, to catch a 6:30 AM flight to Belize, I stopped in my tracks on a brisk walk to the garage. I think I locked the door. But did I? What if, in my hasty rush to leave, the door didn’t quite shut? There had been a lot of break-ins in the neighborhood lately. Could I be responsible for an armed robber entering my house and taking my husband’s life?
This silly thinking is difficult to admit. When one has survived a tragedy, it becomes the norm.
And yet as I drove to the airport on that misty, foggy morning, I shifted my thinking. I focused on the beauty of the past and the present — not the future. We have been married for two years and dated for six. We carry no resentment toward each other.
I'm also learning I need to be ready to confront death, to say goodbye to folks including, yes, my husband, but I needn’t dwell on it. Death comes knocking with such unpredictability that is difficult to shake free.
The best reassurance I can give myself is a dose of carpe diem. I travel less now than I used to, giving myself over to marriage, and nights at home with my husband and our menagerie of animals. I build little indulgences into our days, whether it’s a nice meal out or a vacation to a place we dream about.
I do not want to be saddled with “what ifs” as I start ticking things off my bucket list. Next up: Paris for my husband’s 50th birthday, a trip we talk about often and intend to take.
That night during our phone call — me in Washington, D.C., him at home — we touched on the unknown.
"But if anything should happen to me, I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered near campsite 10 or Auburn Lake," he says.
"Yes, I figured on Auburn Lake," I say.
Then, after a bit of silence, I say, "Okay, I'm glad we had this talk.”