The Death Next Door

 “When unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good.  Negative material has negative consequence.  It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of falling short, of inadequacy.  This material contains painful beliefs like”

Rick Hanson, Ph.D.,  Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Harmony Books, 2013, p. 126

AS A CHILD, I EXPERIENCED A FRIEND DIE OF LEUKEMIA.  Then, shortly after, his mother committed suicide.  I heard the gunshot.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been in a state of depression.  It’s a memory that has stayed with me.  How much it contributed to my own emotional state, I wonder.

I was five of six years old when my parents bought me my first pair of ice skates.  I remember that I got the skates and I had to teach myself how to skate.  Fortunately, we had a neighbor who flooded their yard every winter.  They create a hockey rink and this is where my brother and I learned to skate, use a hockey stick, and maneuver a puck.  Our usual goal was to work on our slap shots and life the puck towards the goalie at close to 100 mph.  Everything was fine at our neighbor’s rink – well, until pucks starting flying through  windows at 60-70 mph.

When my friend found out he had leukemia, it was incredibly sad.  Why would God allow a fifteen-year-old to die of leukemia?  Here was someone intelligent and athletic who was reduced to nothing in a course of six months.  I watched in horror as the son’s death destroyed this family.  At that time, childhood leukemia was a death sentence.  His mother never got over the death of one of her sons.  As neighbors, my brother and I would help by mowing the lawns, tending to gardens, and taking care of the dogs.  The father was a working man who traveled.  He was a great guy and he would always bring back fireworks to the chagrin of my parents.  The oldest son went to college and later medical school.  A lot of that decision was based on his younger brother’s death.

I can still remember the day when I heard the shotgun blast.  I remember going over there and the father yelling, “Someone shot my wife. ”  In fact, she shot herself with a 12-gauge shotgun.  There was blood and brain matter everywhere.  I remember the horror on his face, the utter disbelief, and the questions about why.

I seemed to have little emotional boundary with this event.  I thought I was very capable of doing the same thing.  Something inside told me that I was perfect capable of extreme violence, and that was scary.  Sometimes, I was able to compartmentalize this affair and accept that my friend was gone and that his mother had committed suicide.  The father and the older brother always said that she had been in the hospital whenever she was gone, I knew that something was wrong.  I simply never connect the dots that she had been suffering from depression.  Every time I went by the house, I had these flashbacks of what occurred in that garage.  I knew that my friend was not coming back, and when the remainder of the family moved out, it seemed surreal that we have a new set of neighbors.

The events surrounding my neighbors affected my thinking.  I became more aware of “symptoms.”  My mother used to tell me to stop being a hypochondriac.  Rarely a day went by that I was not thinking that I had a fatal condition or was dying of something.  This, of course, was related to my neighbor’s death.  This fear of dying or losing control seemed to be a common thread over and over.  I remember looking at literature specific to the seven warning signs of cancer and thinking that I had least two or three of them any time I thought about this.  If the Internet had been available then, I am quite sure that I would have been  a lunatic.

I can’t full explain how much losing a young playmate to a terminal illness and then witnessing his mother’s suicide by shotgun turned me in on myself.  It’s just too much for any child to fathom by himself.  Everything was fine until suddenly the whole world fell apart.  The sadness of it all was too much to bear, and I was too young to be worrying about my own mortality, and how life passes.  Did you ever have an experience as a child that challenged your very sense of mortality and that wouldn’t subside in you?


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