In 1972, when I had just started second grade, my 48-year-old father went to the emergency room with chest pain on the evening of Labor Day, had a massive heart attack in the hospital Tuesday and died early the next morning. What this planted in the back of my seven-year-old mind was the notion that big, terrible, unpredictable things may be lurking around the next corner.
At age 47, that message hasn’t gone away (it tends to be bolstered over time as you see more big, terrible things happen to other people you love), but age and parenthood have made me try to think differently.
(The star of this tale.)
These days, when I think of both my father, frozen in time at 48, with whom I shared just seven years, and my own daughter and feel that familiar forboding, I can usually stop myself and shake it off. The flip side of losing a parent so young is that you really do understand all too well how stupid it is to waste valuable time in the here and now. But I haven’t exactly reached the fully enlightened stage in this cerebral battle, which brings me to the vacuuming story.
At my house, the home of two writer/readers, we love words, and we have ended up with quite a collection of tiny Magnetic Poetry tiles. They’re supposed to live on the refrigerator and our purple metal bulletin board and the metal surround of our ancient built-in medicine cabinet, but over time, they’ve ended up scattered all over the house.
On those rare occasions when I feel ambitious enough to launch into a vacuuming frenzy, venturing under furniture and into all sorts of unseen spots I usually zoom past (after all, visitors will never see that dust!), it’s not unusual to come across magnetic words in unusual places.
During one frenzy, I spotted a tile wedged between the slats of a basket and pried it out, doing a double-take when I saw what it was.
“Fear” had become stuck in the basket where we keep our games … those things you do for “fun.” I laughed, put the tile aside and turned the vacuum cleaner back on. A couple of minutes later, forgetting about it, I accidentally sucked “fear” up into the vacuum.
I would never have predicted how unhinged this would make me.
“You can’t take my ‘fear’!” I shrieked (no lie), pulling the canister open and carrying the nearly full bag to the back yard, where I poked a letter opener around in the dusty innards until I recovered my “fear.”
A therapist could obviously have a field day with this story; clearly I needed to do just a little more work on that “fear of the unknown” problem.
But as I thought about my over-the-top reaction, I decided there was probably another layer to the Vacuum Cleaner Incident that is more rooted in what I am – writer, editor, lifelong journal keeper – than in my psychological junk.
Words are powerful for me. I keep a list of favorite words. I’m not very good at meditation and breathing exercises, but when I go for a run when I’m stressed out or busy, I’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of good words as I breathe in and bad ones as I breathe out (‘fear’ is a big one on the exhaling list). And I’m picky/proprietary about our magnetic poetry words; the ones that speak to me get strung together into weird or inspirational or semi-racy phrases or sentences. The ones that bore me become outcasts, pushed down into the word ghetto at the bottom of the refrigerator door.
So I think my nutty visceral reaction was partly due to feeling a certain horror at seeing that small but forceful word – one that’s obviously deeply embedded in my life’s vocabulary – being taken away from me in such a literal way.
I’ve thought about sticking “fear” back in the bottom of the game basket, where it could take on a more laidback life … Fear of losing one’s empire in Monopoly. Fear of getting sent back to ‘home base’ in Trouble over and over again, just when you have your last peg ready to go into the home base row. And so on. Much more doable fears than the ones that tend to scroll through your head on sleepless nights.
But I think I’ll put it back into circulation on the refrigerator and see what poetic things I can do with “fear” to lessen its magnetism.