My mother had an unhealthy obsession with death during my childhood. It was understandable. Her life had been marred by tragedy at an early age. She lost her parents in the most senseless of way, while on vacation with family and friends. As they were driving to the grocery store, a lumber truck crossed the median and crushed their Crown Victoria into an unrecognizable mass. The driver was drunk. There were no survivors.
At barely 16, she went from enjoying a carefree lake-front afternoon to having to identify the bodies of her parents, their best friends and two of their children. This was the kind of event the words “unspeakable tragedy” were created for.
In her time, therapy was reserved for the mentally unbalanced. The term “mentally ill” was reserved for violent offenders who were strapped to tables and pumped full of electricity to try and cure them. Those who had endured great tragedies often suffered in silence. Four years after losing everything and everyone that tied her to this world, she was pregnant, married and raising a family of her own. Forward momentum kept her going. Five kids in five years gave her little time for self-indulgence. It was nearly 20 years before she was forced to deal with it and not by choice. After a particularly stressful row, she had a nervous breakdown that forced her to be institutionalized for a brief stint.
Other than the one episode, most of her dealings with this loss came in annual visits to the cemetery. These were the only times I saw my mother cry. She was a remarkably upbeat person. I’m not sure if she had always been this way or if this had been an unconscious transformation after losing her family. Either way, she made sure that my childhood was filled with laughter. Every effort was made to provide a positive and healthy family experience. In spite of her best efforts, the impact of her tragic youth reared its head in the strangest of ways.
My mother had become obsessed with protecting her family. This was a perfectly natural maternal instinct one would expect of a mother. However, there is a reasonable amount of overcompensation for which tragedy accommodates; my mother not only feared for the safety of her family, she had become an expert on the subject. Reasonable parents worry about their children crossing the street or making sure they know not to talk to strangers. My mother had more microscopic concerns, literally.
One day on the way to hang out with friends, I mentioned we might go swimming. A child would expect to hear warnings about not going out too deep or avoiding the water for at least an hour after eating. My mother was more panicked at the presence of “killer amoeba.” At that time, she had read an article about someone who had died from going swimming in a lake in a state with a warm climate. These tiny organisms known as “killer amoeba” apparently swim up in the nasal cavity and into the brain to cause cerebral hemorrhage.
“Never go swimming in fresh water south of the Mason Dixon line,” she said with the kind of steely confidence that made it seem like an absolute certainty.
Of course, it was insane. In spite of logic. In spite of reason. In spite of the fact that there had been two reported cases in history. She clarified that these killer amoeba were only a danger if I submerged my head under the water. So I was told I could go swimming as long as I didn’t dip my head below the surface. At this point, I was so panicked about the very concept of microscopic bacteria eating my brain that I decided to just forget the entire adventure and stay at home.
Moments like these continued to pepper my entire life. I came to refer to them as snippets in “The Mortality Catalog.” If someone died in an obscure way and my mother read about it, she made sure everyone within earshot was educated on the potential danger.
Sometimes, the advice was sound; more often than not, it ended up being a dark, strange conversation that would leave people baffled and confused.
After leaving home for college, my weekly updates were replaced with random mailings. Every so often I’d get a care package containing clothes, a few sweet treats and a stack of articles about random people who died in obscure ways. Sometimes a story would concern her enough to generate a frantic phone call.
“Do you do handstands?” she asked one morning, not even bothering with the basic pleasantries.
“What?” I replied as I checked the clock. It was depressingly early.
“Handstands. You know, when you stand on your hands. Do you do them?”
“No, Mom. I don’t do handstands.”
“Oh, good!” she decried with relief. “I just read this article about a boy at college who was trying to do a handstand. He couldn’t do it, so he tried to balance himself between two vending machines.”
“OK,” I replied, not sure where she was going.
“When he stood between the machines, he touched an exposed wire and was electrocuted. So, if you’re ever going to do a handstand, make sure you don’t do it between two vending machines.”
These conversations were not rare. My mother was the kind of person for whom the 24-hour news cycle was created. Killer bees! Swimming pool drains that suck out internal organs! Undercooked meat! Wandering vagrants committing sex crimes on the beach at night! For as long as I can remember, my mother had been spinning tales of horror and depravity that would have made Poe uncomfortable.
At the premiere of my first film, she was remarking to her friends about how proud she was of me. Then she said something I’ll never forget: “I don’t really care for scary movies. I don’t know where he comes up with this stuff.”
Be sure to read Anghus’ “My Career Suicide” online, where half-chapters are updated weekly, http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com