The other day, my Best Dude Friend called to chat as he drove back from his parents’ house in Syracuse to his university in Buffalo. I was grocery shopping, idly picking up bunches of kale and putting them back down again, when he cut off suddenly.
“Finn?” I asked into the silence. “You there?” I called him back, twice. No answer.
By the time I’d gotten home, he still hadn’t responded to the three “Hey, you OK?” texts I sent him. Chewing on the edge of my thumb, I got online, Googling the route he’d taken to see if there were any major slowdowns. I checked traffic cams. Then, just for my nerves’ sake, I searched different iterations of “Finn Williamson med student crash Buffalo” until I was satisfied that he probably hadn’t died in a fiery conflagration. Which is, of course, when he called back.
“My phone died,” he said. “Sorry if I worried you.”
“Worried me?” I parroted back half an octave too high. "As if!" He just snorted and hung up. As far as I was concerned, it was another close call.
Until I turned 10, I believed wholeheartedly in the presence of a patriarchal Judeo-Christian God. Being raised Catholic has its major drawbacks -- the guilt, the homophobia, the tendency to chant rote phrases in Latin whenever one falls asleep in Mass -- but at 10, the presence of this God was a comfort to me.
Every single night from when I was 3 to my early teens, I would recite the stupid little prayer that had been scrawled in my Baby’s First Scrapbook, probably by a well-meaning neighbor.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” I’d begin obediently, and rush through the rest of it until I got to my own, customized ending. I still remember whispering aloud in the dark, “God bless Mo-mmy, God bless Da-ddy, God bless Michael,” the names of my family and loved ones tripping along in almost a sing-song until I’d end in a hurried, “God bless all the people I love, God bless me, Amen.” This ritual wasn’t born out of a strange sense of altruism; rather, it was a kind of charm. When I was a kid, I was convinced that if I, personally, did not ask for this nightly protection, my family would not get it. And if they suffered or died as a result, it would be my fault.
That belief in God has vanished. I’ve been an atheist for at least the last decade or so, and had developed a reputation long before that for being the girl who sobbed to the priest about rainforest deforestation (“Because if God lets global warming happen, then how can I believe in him?”) in the confessionals. Post-puberty, I’ve never had any particular existential angst from wrestling with the unlikelihood of a Big Guy measuring up our lifelong ledger. It’s only when I become scared for things beyond my control that I feel the familiar, sucking tension in my gut: the blank space where the assurance of God used to be.
I have a very vivid imagination. When I was 9, for instance, I used to be terrified of swimming in pools at night because I believed that sharks used the cover of darkness to -- I’m not sure, hide beneath the diving board? So I guess it’s really no surprise that I can’t even look when people peer over the edges of rooftops or decide to swim out past the last buoy. I can see them, in my mind’s eye, toppling helplessly over the side or slipping beneath the waves. Somehow, I find myself believing that to envision it is to somehow prevent it, even if it makes my sweat run cold and my stomach ache.
So when my friends insist on climbing the tallest tree in Dolores Park, I squinch my eyes shut and imagine the branches breaking one by one. It’s not a hopeful vision, of course, but it helps me to feel that I have some sort of preventative measures, however ineffective they might be, over any goddamned broken arms that might ensue from this idiocy.
I run into these small-scale worries practically every day. When I see an ambulance tearing north on Mission street, I automatically run through a mental inventory of which of my friends are downtown that day. Every time I leave my accursed bike somewhere, I’ve already come up with a plan on how I’ll react to its thievery and how I’ll get home. It’s personal, too: when I thought I was going to get fired from my day job for a while back in March, I rehearsed my goodbye speech endlessly. Every time I don’t get an e-mail back from a superior, I viciously force myself to contemplate what she’s clearly saying to her colleagues behind my back.
I’ve imagined the funerals of every one of my loved ones -- not because I want them to happen, obviously, but because somehow calling them to the forefront of my attention makes them less likely to occur. Hell, every time I indulge in a not-so-legal drug, I envision my own.
This sort of worry runs in the family. One of the adults who raised me was my maternal grandmother. Despite not taking shit from anyone else in the house and being a general badass kind of lady, Grandma also saddled me with a whole host of concerns about sitting too close to the TV, letting the dog lick one’s face, being down by the creek after the sun went down, and all sorts of other activities that snotty preteens like to get up to. I have vivid memories of my brother and I assuring her “It’s OK, Grandma,” even as we did things like try to fit each other into the washing machine or climb up on two piled-up chairs to fix a light bulb.
Grandma, like me, had a vivid imagination, and never hesitated to tell us exactly what would happen if those chairs toppled or if the washing machine turned on suddenly. Her warnings of death by drowning or neck breaking stayed with me long after my brother and I had left our game behind.
Around the time I turned 10, those neuroses seemed to surface in me, too. I was incredibly worried, for example, that my dog would get carried off by a red-tailed hawk the minute I ducked in from the backyard. I just knew that my Aunt Sandra was going to choke to death on an Oreo when none of us were home. And every night before I went to sleep, I’d whisper “See you in the morning” to Grandma like it was an order: believing, somehow, that the chant would protect her from her old age until the sun rose.
What I remember most about being a Catholic is the immediate specter of suffering in most of the spoken prayers. The Apostle’s Creed has the line, “He suffered, died, and was buried,” as does that Ash Wednesday bit about “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” The implication is an obvious one: keep God in your life, and you can hold that fear at arm’s length. Though not too far.
In the same way, it doesn’t work for me to try to ignore my worries or to distract myself from them. Rather, I have to draw them in close, letting my imagination spin away with worst-case scenario possibilities even as I actively work to prove myself wrong. The other day, as I was searching “Finn Williamson car crash,” I was scripting what I would say to Finn’s dad the next time I saw him after Finn’s premature death. This may seem like ill-wishing, but it’s the opposite, really: As far as I’m concerned, I’ve shown the universe that I’m ready for all it can throw at me, so it might as well go easy. It’s not prayer, but it’s all I’ve got.
Still, there are certainly times when I miss the easy reassurance of a God-figure to whom I could take my worries. As my relatives and loved ones get older, I remember how content I always felt after those rapid-fire “God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy” requests. They gave me a kind of control over chance, something that my Type-A self found very comforting, no matter how false it actually was.
The other weekend, I went back to my parents’ house to visit. When I hugged my grandma good night on Saturday, I was struck by how frail she was, how I could feel all of her ribs beneath her Kohl’s cardigan. She's 93, after all, and finally starting to show her years after decades of steely, willful ignorance.
“Sweet dreams, Grandma,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, I felt, I’d done all I could.