One of my earliest memories of life is about death.
It’s difficult to gauge what my first memory is because young ages are a blur of emotions and recollections from others. I’ve pieced my early memories into a timeline (with my mom’s help with chronology, thanks mom), and one of those memories is most significant because it introduced me to pain, death and fear.
When I was 4 years old, my grandpa fell sick and was in the hospital. My family flew to Atlanta, where my aunt and uncle lived and my grandparents were staying. I remember walking into the kitchen of their house, my grandma sitting in a chair and crying, and my aunt telling me to give her a hug.
I remember being oblivious to the gravity of the situation. But seeing my grandma alone for the first time and sobbing in a chair alerted me that something was wrong. Even though I couldn’t match her emotions, they set the tone and I could expect to see more of them.
The next thing I remember is standing in a hospital room, my entire family gathered around, pressed up against the wall. I stood in front of my other aunt. I watched my mom and her siblings kiss my grandpa goodbye on the forehead, and noticed one elegant tear stream down my mom’s face — the first time I had seen her cry. My aunt leaned down and whispered to me, “He’s going to die now.”
This was the first time I had “seen” death, and I didn’t know what it was. I gathered that it was peaceful, personal and saddening. I don’t remember crying, and I don’t think I did. I didn’t have the emotional experience of having something so real taken away. Seeing the reactions of everyone else around me, however, clued me in on the permanence of what was happening. Looking at my mom crying so elegantly, for the first time I felt vulnerable.
I remember being in my house sometime soon after. It was near bedtime and my mom was in my sister’s room, sitting with her on her bed. I slid into her room as well, my blue elephant blankie trailing behind me, approached my mom and said, “I don’t want to go to heaven” — meaning, I didn’t want to die. I could understand that death was unwanted and made people upset, and I was scared of it.
That’s all I can piece together. I remember playing with toy boats in the bathtub and feeling anxious about sinking in a ship. I stayed away from water for a long time — not learning to swim until I was much older. My grandpa’s death didn’t have anything to do with water, but the idea of sinking or drowning was unsettling. I was always scared that someone would break into our house, fearing the basement and its creaky horrors. I appreciated the purpose of night lights (and did not appreciate reading In Cold Blood!).
This memory is significant because of the fear it instilled in me. It was not solely responsible, but played a role in my shyness as a child and hesitancy in trying new things. I was scared of losing something real again, so I clung to my mom and refused to let go. It took me many years to realize that I enjoy finding new zones and making them comfortable. I’ve learned to challenge my fears — such as in joining clubs, initiating conversations and letting myself trust others. It can still be scary, but the good kind.
My early memory introduced me to fear and death — but my later memories are reminders that fear and death are very small, and other things are so much bigger. For instance, possibilities, opportunities — the world! Though they can be scary and intimidating, it’s in a good way. It’s a good kind of fear that I’m ready to conquer. I’m ready for those memorable memories.