The expression “in the midst of life we are in death” (from a Gregorian chant that was translated into English as part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer) is commonly read at funerals. While we all encounter death throughout our lives, death has figured prominently in my psyche. I’ve been both obsessed with – and terrified of – death. I love Gothic fiction. I’m fascinated by spiritualism. I love old cemeteries. Halloween is my favorite holiday, which I still celebrate. My favorite television series is Six Feet Under.
I’d never really thought about why I hold such a morbid fascination with death. But through journaling and sharing stories, I discovered that I had many encounters with death when I was younger. Although this blog is devoted to my family history, I’d like to share some of my own personal history, as it connects to my family’s history and the broader history of the city and the world in which I grew up and grew into adulthood.
I was born in 1968, a year of great upheaval and violence in the United States. While my childhood felt mostly safe and secure, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a quiet suburb where I had freedom to play and explore, I suffered from anxiety starting around age 3. I had two significant childhood dreams about death. As I got older, I became afraid of losing my parents (especially my mother), of nuclear annihilation, and of my grandmother’s increasingly dangerous urban neighborhood. When I was a teen and a social outcast in high school, I also suffered from depression, a darkness that felt comfortable.
When I was in junior high school, my best friend’s father became ill with cancer, and he died in 1982, just before my 14th birthday, which was my first exposure to the death of someone I knew. My friend took care of him in their home, as her mother had been institutionalized when she was a child, and her older sister never seemed to be around. Her father was always there in the background, ghostly pale and sick from the treatments. After her father died, I lost my best friend as well, as she went to live with her grandmother in the country. Our friendship continued of course, but it wasn’t the same.
From 1986 to 1988, death came closer to home, while major world events dominated the news. When I was a senior in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt even more distant from my classmates and friends, who talked about parties and boyfriends, so I withdrew further. In the same year, two tragedies were seared into our collective memory – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, shortly after my 18th birthday, and the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, shortly before my sister’s 15th birthday.Continue reading “1987”