Growing up, I was notoriously unpopular with the Italian community I grew up in. My family was pretty hardcore Neopolitan – I learnt to play soccer before I could walk! The status quo demanded minimal risk taking, saving for your mortgage at 16, being married by 20, babies by 25. My dad was adamant I adhere to the ‘plan’, unless I became a pro soccer player then I was pretty much free to do whatever. My grandparents, bless them, just as confused at my general disinterest in living my life in a box. So when I left home to live in Hawaii, alone, at 16, they nearly had a heart attack. Unphased, I packed and off I went to explore at every chance I had.
My grandmother (who doubled as my best friend/wise woman/straight shooter/crone) and I chatted regularly throughout my travels. About everything and anything mostly, but each time we spoke she would ask the same question.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“No? Never. Not once.”, I replied.
I got lonely, I missed the people I cared about, sometimes I felt worried or overwhelmed. But never scared. I guess she hated that answer because she would immediately follow it with 3 mega Nonna accented, “But-ta how? But-ta why? But-ta why you no come-a home? Why you no a-fraid?”
Upon further reflection, her reactions made total sense.
My grandmother was so afraid of crashing her car and dying, she refused to drive one. As in, I have never seen her drive a car. A fear, of which you can imagine, was incredibly stifling.
My grandmother was so afraid to perish on an airplane, she never once returned to her home country following her arrival in Canada. Never to see her family again.
I looked at her fears, how they crippled her. It made me so sad to see her live a life that was so burdened by heavy worry. And the truth is, she always looked sad, always looked worried. Her fears actually scared me out of ever letting my own fear dictate my life’s journey. I could die at any given moment but I was more afraid of missing out on a life well lived. I tried to explain this logic to her and I could tell that although she didn’t necessarily understand my fearless nature, she enjoyed living vicariously through me.
At one stage, she stopped trying to convince me to come home. She laughed, she loved me and every inch of my wild little heart.
Years passed, things changed. My grandfather became very ill, dying only to leave my grandmother alone and heartbroken. The last time we spoke she wasn’t feeling very well and I vividly remember feeling very worried for her. This was the only time in many years of travel I felt selfish and confused. I asked if I should fly back to Montreal but she insisted I don’t and that I have fun.
One sunny day, I found myself walking down the CBD in Melbourne. Another big adventure in a new part of this big world. Excited to share my stories, I rang my Nonna only to find out she had passed in the night.
I felt a blow to my chest that stopped me in my tracks on Bourke street. This would be the first time in my life that death would felt real to me and I suppose that this is how most young people who feel invincible are reminded that they too, have something to fear – when those they love start to die.
My naivete became abundantly clear to me in the days following her death. I closed up. Retreated within myself. Not even making my way to the funeral because I couldn’t bear to see her. I imagined her body lifeless, it broke me. I hated what I felt and I chose to hate death for robbing her from me. Should I have succumbed to the anxiety, I too would have been crippled. So I avoided it. I avoided death and that is how I coped. This is how I chose to hold on.
Life resumed, adventures continued. To Thailand. Malaysia. Singapore. London. Mexico. The Dominican Republic. To Australia, again & again. Avoiding the idea of death kept me free from the constraints most people were commanded by. And this is how I liked it. This is how I felt safe. Even when people I cared for began to die around me – I lived boldly and fearlessly in their honor.
But seeing as death is death, and there is nothing more certain than a beginning and an end for each of us, the day came where I had no choice but to meet that truth.
And so I did, in the most agonizingly beautiful of ways…
The day I became a mother was the day I could no longer escape the realities of my mortality.
The births of my children were unbelievably remarkable human experiences, transforming me from the inside out. Feeling the most alive I have ever felt, exploring realms of consciousness and physical feelings unseen to the eye. Palpable feelings of new life, I felt strong and like I had defeated my sworn enemy, you know, he who must not be named…Death.
I had a moment that looked like me being the kid in class sticking out my tongue at his teacher, shouting, ‘Na Na Na Na, I win! I beat you!’
But holy shit balls was I wrong, so fucking wrong. This great teacher had yet so much to teach me and he was going to hit me while I was down. Although happy and chuffed with my new chapter as mum, fatigue and overwhelm created the perfect breeding ground for negative thoughts. And it was my brain that became death’s playground.
Little did I know, compulsive thoughts about death (dying or losing someone you love to death) are pretty common after birth. Especially in the case of parents suffering with post-partum anxiety. A quick Google search will show you how rampant this issue is, and always more of a presence among mothers after birth.
The foreign dialogue between me, myself and death was depressing me, to say the least. I would try and explain those feelings to my husband and my best friend. I spoke to dozens of women, many I worked with personally, all going through the same thing. One week I slept a mere number of hours as I wrestled the panic of my impending death in my mind.
What would happen to my kids if I died? What would I do if my children died? How could I go on? Just 3 of 100’s of questions I asked myself daily.
A characteristically positive & strong person, I reached out to the most inner parts of my soul for strength. I went searching for my happy place. I resumed lots of physical activity, ate lots of nutrient dense foods, spent lots of time in the sun, started a business I loved, kept busy with my children, travelled…and it disappeared.
The obsessive worry, the anxiety, the fears. They dissapeared. Almost overnight, at the 6 month mark. After BOTH my babies. After two eerily similar bouts of crippling anxiety and insomnia and two very successful turn arounds using holistic healing – I came out of the fog. I felt human again.
When my second child turned 1, I flailed my middle finger in the air, glass of champagne in the other hand. We were living in Mexico at the time, I felt so complete, so whole, so unphased about my expiration date. So excited that I even managed to find a deep peace with death. I was cool, we were cool.
And then just like that, I was brought back down to earth with a hammer. A few nights ago I was in a car accident. And although minor, it shook me to the core, a tsunami of intense emotion bubbling to the surface. The what ifs paralyzing me in my bed. Already feeling fragile, my beloved pet fell very ill. Our connection was so strong, she called me to her open cage with one soft, long chirp. I knew something was wrong and I made a mad dash to meet her eyes, to let her know I heard her and I was there. She looked at me, struggling, taking her last breathe and taking a part of me with her.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hurting. Because I am. But there is an unprecedented clarity, too. I am stronger from each lesson this life has taught me, from each reality check death has brought me. I can tell that acknowledging the truths of my mortality makes me a better human, one who is present and engaged, appreciating each moment in life as one to be treasured. And for that I am grateful. I am not running from the sadness, not running from my self-reflection. I want to instill equal parts values of fearlessness, and a respect for the delicate inner workings of how fear fuels us, into the hearts of my children.
I only wish I could have showed my grandmother how to make light of her fears, too.
Have you experienced something similar? Are you still struggling with it? Have you made friends with Death?
Melbourne Doula, Birth Photographer and Mother