What Fear is Trying to Teach You in the Dark

What Fear is Trying to Teach You in the Dark

During my Complete Mental Breakdown(TM) a few years ago, I fantasized about my husband being killed.

Stabbed on a dark train platform on the way home, he clutches his stomach as a small, faceless stranger disappears into the shadows. They take his computer bag, which is later found in a dumpster a block away.

Or maybe he’s run to the store for a gallon of milk, and bananas, we’re always out of bananas. He’s constantly buying more, hoping they’ll turn brown and I’ll make banana bread, but they never last. As he crosses the parking lot, grocery bag in hand, a minivan skids on the ice, crushing him between its passenger door and a nearby SUV. His ribs puncture his lungs, and as panicked bystanders call an ambulance, he suffocates on his own blood.

I hated myself as I had these fantasies, but they lulled me to sleep on difficult nights. On nights when his snores were so loud I couldn't close my eyes, and every inch of my skin ached to be pressed against him, and I was afraid. I couldn't rely on him for comfort in this, just as I couldn't expect him to comfort me through the days and weeks and decades after he died.

That he is going to be gone, that I will face those decades after losing him, is barely a question mark removed from incontrovertible fact. Eleven years ago he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. During that year we drove back and forth from our home in Chicago to his parents’ in Minnesota, past the “Astronaut Deke Slayton and Bicycle Museum” over and over again. We joked about that museum, was it a collection of Deke Slayton’s bicycles? An exhibit of wax figures depicting Astronaut Deke Slayton on various historical contraptions, even perhaps two Deke Slaytons on a tandem?

What I never told my husband during this period of joking was that I looked up the museum online, and learned Deke Slayton died of glioblastoma in 1993.

I tried to ignore glioblastoma as it killed Ted Kennedy, but after that Brittany Maynard made international news, fighting for her right to die rather than being forced to suffer through her glioblastoma to the end. It killed Beau Biden. An astounding number of Major League Baseball players died of glioblastoma in the years after our diagnosis. When it hit John McCain, I was beginning to pull myself out of these compulsive imaginings.

Over the years I began to think of the glioblastoma as “ours,” just as I think of my husband’s dresser as “ours,” and his car, and the chores he does around the house. When he’s dead they will become mine, and while I will not inherit his tumors, it’s me who will have to confront the aftermath of his having been, of his having gone, of glioblastoma’s accouterment scattered across our home and lives.

Did you know that if you Google, “What is the worst kind of brain cancer?” Google answers “glioblastoma.”

With every corner of the internet on the side of my husband’s death, I found myself imagining something, anything, taking him away from me forever, anything else.

In these fantasies, I was not responsible. I did not pay somebody to kill him, I didn't orchestrate these accidents. I’m merely the bereaved widow, so distraught I stop eating and lose a dramatic fifty pounds. I look amazing, and tragic, and heart-breakingly young.

My husband’s imaginary death devastates our friends and family. They take up a collection to ensure our children can attend college. His life insurance policy pays off the mortgage. I live in “our” house. The children grow up and move away, and I travel to the places I dreamed of before we were married and the glioblastoma and then children came into our lives. Prague. Mumbai. Kyoto. Morocco. Jerusalem. Sao Paulo.

Sometimes I imagined a friend, somebody I’d known since before my husband came into my life, partnering with me to raise my children.

In another fantasy, I met another bereaved thirty-something. Our collective grief unites us. We find a deep, passionate comfort in each other. Maybe it doesn’t last forever, but we hold each other through our mourning.

Over the years I have had time for hundreds of these fantasies, thousands. Ninety percent of the time I am exactly as confident as I appear, certain that my miraculous husband will always beat the odds, will live until a very old age and die of something mundane and inevitable like everyone imagines themselves sometimes dying.

Ninety percent of the time I can't consider the horrors of my fictional futures. I’m too busy being annoyed that he won’t put his dirty dishes into the dishwasher, or that our children have been stalling bedtime for nearly half an hour, or that I have an ingrown toenail and I need to get away from whatever task is at hand and take care of it. Ninety percent of the time, I’m fine.

But sometimes, complete mental breakdown or not, these fantasies come to me whole, complete, full stories with little bows tying them together.

And that is the true comfort in them, that I know what will happen. That I don't need to sit in the shadow of doubt, terrified of the dark.

This is what makes fantasy distinct from fiction. We never know. We never see the future before us, even into the next hour. When the horror is in the past it may never go away, but it is finite, definite, tangible, and treatable. You cope, or you don't, but the wondering and worrying come to an end.

For a minute.

We are lucky that there is always another minute ahead of us. There is always another unknown lurking beyond the horizon. There is always something else to fear. So giving myself that ten percent, that sliver of my time to let fear grip my heart and offer horrible, past-tense alternatives, this isn't weakness.

Seeing those alternate pasts-in-the-future, those whole stories without loose ends or unknowns, seeing them whole and complete and then returning to a world of doubt?

That is strength.

That is the difference between having a frightening fantasy and being controlled by it.

That is the lesson I had to learn in order to begin appreciating my life and enjoying it again.


Read more lessons from living in the shadow of brain cancer here: What I Know About Living in a Fairy Tale

Read my most recent post here: 12 Reasons Having Kids Is The WORST (and 6 unexpected ways it's magical)

If you're social, follow me on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram!

Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is spam-free, and you can opt out at any time.

Filed under: Depresssion, Illness, Life

Tags: Anxiety, Cancer, Death, Fear, Stories

Leave a comment