I am afraid. My first impulse is to say that I am afraid of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the face waiting to be unmasked. However, this is not entirely true. I am afraid of one particular unknown; it's a big one, though.
I was reading a book, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, when I came across a part in which a beloved family dog, Daisy, must be euthanatized. I felt deeply despondent for those closest to Daisy. As I thought of the life I lead with my two dogs, I projected this despair upon myself. I am the proud owner of a five-year-old cairn terrier, stubborn as can be, and a two-year-old beagle, adorable and always lick-happy. Although I hadn't been thinking of them much until then, even though they had been keeping me company as I read, the idea that the same fate would befall them induced a mild panic. My features contorted into the ugly cry face we all make when something terrible has just happened. Of course, nothing terrible had occurred. I had merely thought of the vibrant personalities of my two companions and how soon life would cease for them. Yes, I love them, and yes, I show them I love them. I walk them. I provide them with the sustenance they need. Yet, I wondered, was this enough? Was I doing all that I could for them? I began thinking about the time when they would get older. Odds were, my cairn would be the first to go. How would he take his departure? Would it be painful? How soon would my beagle pup follow in his older brother's footsteps? These thoughts, daunting as they were, led me to question whether or not mankind should deep-six the entire institution of purchasing and owning pets.
I've always had reservations about keeping animals—at the root of my ambivalence has been the fact that animal families are being broken when humans adopt a pet. In American history, it was common practice to break the familial ties of African Americans until people started realizing that slavery is wrong. My intuition tells me that a time will come when we realize that rupturing the families of animals is wrong as well.
As I continued pontificating on the matter, I thought of the pros and cons of keeping household pets, and I felt my fear of the unknown arise anew. On the positive side I placed the love, happiness, and true joy that accompany pet ownership. On the negative side was death, which would bring me a sadness I don't know if I'm willing to endure. Why does the world have to work this way? Why must we feel rich only for a moment, and then feel poor? Can't we just be rich without there being a downside? Is it greedy of me to seek all of the benefits of an experience and reject all the detriments?
This notion made me think further. Why feel any hardship? Why can't life always be perfect and glorious? Is there a way to rid life of its matte or problematic paint finish? Before long, I really 'got to thinking.' I hate when I get to thinking. Five years from now, I thought, I will be newly out of college, entering the real world for the first time. Five years after that, I will, with enough good fortune, have found a secure and stable job. Five years further on, I may have become a solicitous parent to a naughty child who reminds me more and more each day of myself when I was younger. And five years after that … all of these thoughts were pleasant enough until I kept going. What would happen when I got sick in another five years and was lying in the hospital bed, knowing it was my end?
This time, the panic was not slight. I got out off the couch and started pacing the room—back and forth, back and forth. A full-on panic attack had overcome me. I started crying, and my thoughts ran wildly around a central motif of imminent, certain doom. It was as if an adrenaline rush, the fight or flight response, had initiated within me—death had threatened my being. No, I thought, I can't die. I won't die. I don't want to die. The truth is that I am going to die. I am already dead. We are all already dead. We are the living dead.
I felt like I couldn't breathe. I gasped for air. All the while, I kept managing to utter, "I can't breathe." I could breathe, of course; I was only feeling as though I couldn't, like someone had punched me in the gut—punched me so hard that my will to live had been put to question. Darkness: I had seen darkness, the darkness of not waking up … of just stopping. I had realized that I am one of a myriad of mere animals that won't live forever, and that even if the end doesn't feel near now, it will one day, one day that isn't far off, maybe sixty to eighty years in the future. What were sixty to eighty years in the grand scheme of things? The earth is 4.54 billion years old. I was born to come to an end. Even worse, the sun was born to come to an end. We live, we die, our future dies, the sun implodes, and then what? Unknown. Darkness.
It was too much. I was just a small, singular entity, a person tackling a problem that was far too big. I was David fighting Goliath, only this David had retreated, realizing that he was no match for Goliath.
I didn't know what to do. I paced out of the room and headed toward my parents’ bedroom. The bed was empty, as they had gone out for the night. I threw myself onto their comfy mattress and continued sobbing—my cries evolved into wails that were most likely audible to the neighbors. As I writhed in agony, my body suggestive of a helpless embryo, my dogs appeared and started sniffing me, making me feel tickled with ease and joy as their wet snouts softly touched my skin. I laughed. And soon, I calmed down. If it hadn't been for them, or for the comfort of writing about my experience, how would I have managed such anguish?
What should any of us do? I'm afraid. I can fill my time with little lovelies, always trying to make sure that each moment is amazing, but I can't help but be afraid. We cannot be apathetic toward death, but is fear what we should feel in its presence?
The teen inside me felt vulnerable—not invincible like I usually felt. I was helpless. Yet the panic attack was cathartic in one sense: I had realized that I was afraid of death and only death. My fear of anything and everything else had dissipated into the air. Death was my only insurmountable obstacle; the rest I could manage.