Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Worrier

Worry and stories: the pit and meat of a fruit that I've been gnawing my entire life.

I have no idea when it started. Young. Self-mytholigization (which I practice constantly) is great for braids but tricky about origins, since who can really tell where things start. On the one hand, there are the obvious culprits. I'm an oldest child, which means that I saw my place as the center of my parents' universe be completely disrupted when my brother came along. When I was six, my family moved from small town Vermont to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where we lived for the next four years of my life. I did not see this coming. After PNG, we moved to Lusaka, Zambia for three years; then I went to boarding school in Connecticut; then to college. At this point in my life, I'm 31 years old and have never lived anywhere consecutively for more than four years. Anywhere but Vermont, that is, for those first six. 

Being an expat teaches you two great lessons: gluttony, and the importance of stories. The first of these is more fun, but leads to terrible habits. In Zambia, for example, we had three household gods: light, water, and the telephone. Capricious and playful, they ruled over our lives with high-handed glee, frustrating our efforts at stability and sending my mother into fits of rage so terrible that the rest of us huddled for mercy, waiting for the thunderbolt. Stop, shhh, don't anger them, we whispered at her from under the kitchen table. But mom didn't care. A major deity in her own right, she envied these third-world interlopers their freedom. When the power returned to our house after three days of absence, she sniffed slightly before returning, unimpressed, to her Laurens Van Der Post. She wanted to convey a sense of our dignity as human beings to these despots; but as usual, she was thwarted in this by the rest of us, who were not as strong. We whooped with joy the minute the first flicker caused our massive refrigerator to hum to life and continued celebrating throughout the night, cheered on by the happy mutter of whatever appliances we could find. My brother ran through the house turning on all the lights as my father thwacked the television, causing a dim, static-infused image to waver there. You could barely see anything of the picture itself - but then there, in the corner, the chubby little CNN logo stood unmistakably, along with the time and date - in New York city, of course. 

We had been there, allegedly. When school or the simple loneliness of being 12 got me down, I asked my brother, who my mother called a "pack rat", to get out the placemat he'd kept from one of our last MacDonald's visits. It was wrinkled slightly, but could still be counted on for a faint, ever-alluring whiff of grease. We examined it for hours, luxuriating not just in its word scrambles and mazes (which my brother traced out lovingly each time, despite the fact that we'd crayoned in the solutions long ago), but in the marginalia: the copyrights and directions and promotional codes. Though less immediately satisfying, these offered a subtle and completely thrilling reality that the more obvious material could not match. We poured over them like archaeologists, hypothesizing and explaining our way towards the fantastic civilization that they represented - that we ourselves would be a part of, some day!

When exactly that day would come was contested - but its existence was unshakable. My father and mother debated its precise date with the passion of medieval theologians debating the Apocalypse, while my brother and I listened quietly. We had our own theories, of course, which deviated from the family story in detail while following it in bulk. My brother thought we would return through Heathrow, I was sure it would be Charles De Gaulle. My sister, who had been born in Papua New Guinea, and whose status as a bonafide American we therefore maintained was suspect, wanted to know if Moses, our gardener, would come on the same airplane as us, and if she could carry our beloved family calico, Kitty Waddy Doo Doo, in her backpack. I told her that Moses hated snow, and that Kitty Waddy would suffocate in her backpack. As the oldest, it was my job to break the hard truths to my siblings, who I knew had absolutely no idea what was going on. 

In private, I had my doubts, which I brought to my mother. "My little worrier," she said, smiling - assuring me, as only she could, that everything was going to be alright. But my worrying was relentless: a force that I could neither control nor harness. A year earlier, when my family had travelled the remote Cook Islands (my dad was trying to decide between moving us there, or to Zambia), I'd spent a week's worth of nights camped outside my hotel door, waiting for my parents' feet to appear. They were in a different room from us - which fact had convinced me, or my Worry at least, that they were going to slip out one night and disappear, abandoning my siblings and me to this paradise. I still remember that feeling: the intense, overpowering physicality of it. Despite everything that my mind and heart knew to be true - despite all the evidence of twelve years of familial love  - I was convinced they would leave us. It was just a matter of time, before sleep-deprivation overcame the uncomfortableness of the hotel pillow, and I fell asleep at my watch, and then woke up (as one always wakes up, when Worrying) alone. 

Writing this now, I'm not sure how to put it. I don't know if my mother stroked my hair like in a movie (I do remember her stroking my hair), or snapped at me (sometimes she snapped at me), or just stopped whatever she was doing and told me straight that nothing like that was going to happen. However she did it, I am sure I emerged from the kitchen, or bedroom, or wherever we were, refreshed: ready to spread the Good News. Anxious to, actually - for like all converts, I was insecure in my confidence and so desperate to hear it echoed by those around me. I told my brother and sister that it was true: we were going back, it was just a matter of time. A matter of months - weeks, even, which we could count on a calendar or make a snake of construction paper loops to measure, as my mother had advised. She believed in looking at one's fears directly, which is one of the reasons my shifty worries drove her so utterly crazy. But I dove to it, cutting and stapling a long chain that I drooped around my bedroom walls like the carcass of some gigantic beast that I had slain. It wilted in the intense moisture the sub-saharran rainy season until, a few weeks later, I threw it away. 

There was, however, another way: a spell so secret and unpredictable that I kept it from all of them, even my mother. I'd discovered it myself, on one of those long nights that I spent begging God to protect my family from harm. I pictured Him listening intently, with a the tricky smile of a Arabian Nights djinni. He would grant my wishes; but in order to prevent him from slanting them into horrible lessons, I had to be specific. I had to tell him, not just that I wanted my mother not to die, or to be seriously injured, but that I wanted her not to die the next day, in a car crash, caused by a careening truck like the one we'd passed earlier that day. The truck would not be blue, yellow, white, black or red. Or orange. It would not be driven by a man drinking a Coke, or smoking, or with a hat on. For each calamity that I named, four more seemed to appear - but I tracked them down ruthlessly, exhausting myself with disasters. By the time I fell asleep (almost always mid-prayer), I'd imagined everything: I'd seen my mother die horribly, crying, her heart crushed, her eyes raised in desperation. The word God, repeated incessantly at the beginning, had disappeared now, subsumed by the tide - but it didn't matter, for I wasn't talking to God anymore. I was chanting, talking my Worry into a words so terrible that I'm sure they would have caused the rest of my family to pale.

It worked, too. Like a pipsqueak Scheherazade, I turned my worries into stories, which, as all skeptics (whether adults or children) know, never come true. I saved my life for one more night - saved all their lives. After three years in Zambia, we went back. Our house was still there. I went to school, grew up. Then, in 2005, my mother died of brain cancer. Something none of us saw coming. 

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