There were times in my life that I thought I was going to die. It was mostly when I was a teenager and lived on my own and very bad things happened. But it's different when you're young. If you're not facing imminent death, from, say, a grave illness or an accident, the great beyond is not as scary because young people tend to think they're immortal.
You don't have decades of anticipation of what death may be like, you're nowhere close to mortality and you don't yet have the people that come along through those decades that you need to hold on to.
As an adult, I've never really thought that I would die—until last week.
Something is wrong with my balance; I veer to the left. Not all the time and it's not something I feel in my head—no dizziness, no sense that I'm askew. It doesn't affect my driving or my typing; or my speech or thinking. Maybe because of the lack of symptoms or maybe because I thought it would just stop as abruptly as it started a couple months ago, I didn't call the doctor.
That is, I didn't call after I rounded a corner at the gym and ran into people coming at me, staggered toward a woman with a baby in the supermarket who scooted out of the way and gave me a dirty look, or bumped into my friend for the umpteenth time, so that she joked, "You trying to get with me?" My left shoulder and ankle were full of small cuts and bruises.
Then I went to New York City to visit my son. I walked into him, tripped, careened away from people at the last moment. My unsteadiness could be mistaken for the way people are in the city—so wrapped up in conversation or their own thoughts (or these days, their devices)—that they don't pay attention to others.
It was when I returned and got on my bike and ran into a pole, badly bruising my leg that I finally called the doctor.
I made an appointment for the following week. "I seem to have a balance problem," I told them. His nurse called me right back. The doctor wanted to see me first thing in the morning.
"That's a little dramatic," I thought.
At the appointment, Dr. Rosenberg had me do physical maneuvers that felt like I was at a child's party. Balance is so rudimentary: touch my nose, look at his nose and then follow his hand without moving my head ... but I got an F when it came to walking a police line heel-to-toe.
"We're going to get you in for an MRI of your brain," he said.
In the two days before the MRI appointment and the two days it took to get the results, I panicked. In the immortal words of Roseanne Rosannadanna, I thought I was gonna die.
I have a controlling relationship to my body—not to the point of dysfunction or disorder but I am particular about what I eat, how I exercise and I know what's going on with my body at different points in my life. That kind of control has its drawbacks, since I am anxious and prone to panic.
But drawbacks aside, being hyperaware of my body is the remedy for when I was a child and sexually abused, and when I had to confusingly and painfully give my body to men (then in my teens, I took far too many drugs and offered it to anyone because I thought I was only worth my sexuality).
Now there was something wrong with me and it was not in my control. When it sunk in that I could not visualize my brain like I could my quadriceps or rotator cuff, I could not stop myself from obsessing about the worst.
How would I tell my children I was going to die? I rehearsed this while pacing my apartment, crying. What would I miss of their lives? I remember when I was pregnant, thinking there was no way I could give birth to a healthy human being, considering what my body went through. And then I did just that—twice. It made me deeply sad to think that life's trick was this—that I would only know them until their 20s and then I would be gone, extinguished (because that's what I think death is).
And I was absolutely horrible to a friend who I then clung to, apologizing and crying and saying I didn't want to die at 58. I sat down and wrote emails to my closest friends to tell them what was going on. (Which has its own drawbacks because then you have to keep updating them.) I wrote to my Buddhist friend, who I've known forever, who said that I have to accept and deal with my panic, because the panic feeds itself. That actually helped.
And then I went back to my doctor. "Good news!" he said, bursting in the room. The MRI was normal. Even the abnormal things were common and not dangerous. I was not going to die. Even though my Buddhist friend told me this was a learning moment; I thought of it more as a rehearsal.
I was lying in bed this morning, a cool breeze coming through the window, and I thought of where I would put my winter coats in my new place and about whether the loft would be too hot or too cold in the winter. Then I told myself to stop worrying about the future: Remember, I was dead last week.