Sunday, November 14, 2010

My Autobiography, Part 1 - "Early Doom"

"I was born in a place I never lived, raised with a language I no longer speak, and I never thought I'd live this long."

I. Early Doom.

I'm being completely honest about this: I lived my life with the absolute conviction that I would die before 30. I don't know where this belief came from, because I had it for as long as I could remember, even when I was a kid. I vaguely recall that this notion was born at roughly the same time my mind grasped the finality of death, so I must have been around 5 or 6, but I can't recollect the actual moment.

It would be easy for me to conjure up some illustrative anecdote of me staring at something dead, like an animal or a bug, and make that the emblematic incident when I became convinced I would die young. And, truth be told, it may have actually happened that way. But I don't remember it, and I'm trying to stay as honest as I can here, with the full knowledge that memories are always fraught with uncertainty.

I do remember getting an assignment when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade where I had to draw myself at the age of 35, and I laughed, because I just knew that was never going to happen. But I played along, treating the assignment like an exercise in fantasy, like being told to draw a picture of a unicorn. So, while the other kids were drawing themselves as doctors or firemen or astronauts or as the President of the United States, I drew myself as this short, pudgy guy with thick glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, in a dark suit, carrying a briefcase. I can't remember what profession I told my teacher I worked in, whether it was architecture or the law, because I considered such speculation pointless. I might as well have been telling her I was going to grow up to be a wizard.

By then, my belief in my young death had gone deep. It's like my early doom had written itself into my genetic code like a virus. A lot of kids at this age have an irrational fear of the dark, which, in my case, was made only worse by my certainty that death was waiting to ambush me. I started believing that some form of death -- whether it was an actual monster or not was something I had no wish to actually find out -- lived under my bed, waiting for the lights to go out so that it could reach up and claim me.

Looking underneath my bed beforehand did nothing to tamp down my fears. My only protections, once the lights were turned off, were to stay safely on top of my bed and to cover every inch of my body with a sheet or a blanket. An exposed hand or foot was certain to invite an attack. How many nights did I cower under my covers, aching to pee but knowing that I couldn't step down to the floor because something would surely grab my ankle and drag me to my doom?

And, as strong and ingrained as this belief was, I also knew that I couldn't tell anyone about it. I instinctively knew that no one would believe me. I mean, what would you think about a kid who walked up to you and said, in a completely serious tone of voice, "I'm going to die soon," even though this kid exhibited zero signs of adverse physical health? You'd think such a kid was weird, if not outright crazy, wouldn't you?

An early brush with death came when I suddenly & traumatically developed an allergy to shellfish. We lived in the Philippines at the time, and seafood of all sorts was an integral part of our diet. I remember that it was at some kind of event at the Knights of Columbus, where my grandfather presided in some sort of official capacity and where they were boiling up big pots of whole crab. I was around 7 years old, and I quickly stuffed myself with succulent crab-meat -- and went right into shock.

The pain was intense, and my throat closed like someone had their hands around it. I couldn't breathe, and my mother started to loudly panic. I remember my father carrying me into his car. We were at Clark Air Force Base, so it was a quick drive to the Emergency Room, where I was given a shot that stopped the pain, relaxed my throat, and made me woozy with relief.

The doctor told us that allergies like this could manifest suddenly in kids my age, but this didn't reassure me at all. A food I loved had suddenly become poison, which only reinforced my certainty that I wasn't long for this world. I loved shrimp and crab. They were staples of the cuisine of my mother's side of the family, and I was dismayed that I would never be able to enjoy them again. The doctor patted my head and told me that I would surely outgrow my allergy, that this episode wasn't nearly as life-threatening as it had felt, and that I would one day be able to eat crab again. This mollified the 7-year-old me enough so that I was allowed to walk out of the Emergency Room with a grape sucker in my mouth and a weak smile on my face.

At around the same time, I started getting nosebleeds. At first, they were minor and were quickly dealt with by shoving a wad of kleenex up my nostril. But they soon became more frequent and more serious, and they would start randomly, at any time of day, no matter where I was or what I was doing. The treatment of choice  was to have me lean my head back and hold tissue around the seeping nostril until it stopped. During the worst nosebleeds, I would be told to lie down and relax.

During one particularly bad episode, I was lying in bed, holding kleenex around my nose and waiting for it all to stop, when my stomach began to ache. Not only did it begin to ache; it also began to blow up like a balloon. Soon, it was grossly distended and as tight as a drum. I was delirious, though whether it was from loss of blood or something else wasn't clear. Once again, I was rushed to the Emergency Room.

As the doctor examined me and as my father explained my situation, the nausea rose in my throat, and I blurted out that I was about to throw up. A small, stainless steel vomit tray was held up in front of my mouth, and I released my rising gorge. What came out was a gory mixture of my most recent meal and copious quantities of swallowed blood. The tray overflowed, and I sprayed rose-colored vomitus all over the assembled equipment before a large pot was hustled in to catch the rest of it. It was a scene straight out of a Stephen King novel, with nastiness dripping from everything around me by the time I was done.

What made things worse was the fact that all the doctors and nurses knew my father. He was the hospital administrator, and his son had just exploded all over the Emergency Room.

I remember the doctor laughing ruefully as he explained to my parents that the correct method of dealing with nosebleeds was to lean forward and pinch the nostrils lightly shut, to encourage clotting and to not allow blood to flow down the back of the throat and into the stomach, where it tends to disagree with one's digestion. Once again, I was reassured with a grape sucker and the muttered admonition that "no one dies from a nosebleed, kid."

Still, I knew I didn't have long to live. I just knew it. And so, even though I was a pretty smart boy who did well in school, I never planned ahead. What was the point? My time on this planet was going to end any minute, so any idea that I should worry about my grade-point-average seemed ridiculous.

This isn't to say I was lazy. I could apply myself to even the hardest of tasks, if it was work that I enjoyed, and, as a kid, I actually enjoyed schoolwork. I liked reading and learning new things, but I wasn't reading and learning in order to achieve some future goal, like getting into a good college. I was living in the moment, enjoying the effort, which is why my education -- from grade school to university -- was always an unfocused, haphazard thing.

After all, why submit to drudgery when any moment could be your last? Such were the beginnings of nascent, fatalistic hedonism.

But I didn't die. Despite my own best efforts to create this self-fulfilling prophecy of early death (more on this later), I have survived, at least long enough to write this. And, now, over a decade past my 30th birthday, I have finally shaken off my preoccupation with my early doom. But it wasn't until recently that the last of it left me. It's not that I now think I'm immortal. I've just finally internalized the notion that I should relax about my mortality. Instead of thinking each moment might be my last, I have begun to think that maybe I should start planning ahead, saving a little money, and start building something resembling a fulfilling & purposeful life.

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