Fear has never been unfamiliar to me. It started out simple, I guess… Fear of the dark. Fear of talking to strangers. Fear of heights. Fear of spiders and snakes. The usual. But as I’ve gotten older I wonder sometimes if my relationship with Fear is more like an awkward relative than an acquaintance. You know… something you can’t really shake even though you want to. Something that, as many times as you try to banish it, shows up unannounced at parties or calls late one random Tuesday night just to check in.
For a while I thought a lot of my fear stemmed from not being able to control things. Back in the days before I got sick, I thought if I could just think about all of the problems ahead of time, I could prevent them all. I was dutiful. I planned for natural disasters, cautioned my kids, and had a home security system. All the usual things. I think deep down I could feel it even then – quietly reminding me that my dad had been sick when I was very young and almost silently whispering that something awful was waiting for me. Well… almost silently… and any voice that it had was drowned out by my faith in God and general optimism about life.
At some point, Fear became a fixture. Instead of popping by to visit, it seemingly added on a room to my heart and took up permanent residence there. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m guessing it had something to do with cancer. Suddenly I went from a young wife and mom to a young cancer patient. From then on it was a voice I couldn’t really tune out, even though I beat cancer and lived to tell the tale. My optimism had only slightly wavered since my cancer story was one of victory. The choice to see it as me overcoming something difficult was one I made every day. It was a choice to be strong rather than spend every day knowing that my body had mutinied against me and that it could do so again at any moment. It could be doing it as I thought about it and I wouldn’t even know. It was an unnerving reality – especially for someone who was already a worrier. I pulled faith, optimism, and strength tight around me like a blanket and carried on.
In 2016, Fear started running the place. My marriage had fallen apart and everything that I had counted on as a constant was crumbling. My faith was in tact, but my optimism was in shambles. Any strength I could muster was busy helping me put one foot in front of the other, so it couldn’t be concerned with things like my heart. Fear saw its opportunity and started calling the shots. I was constantly scared of things great and small – scared of doing anything that would further hurt or damage my children’s hearts, scared that I wasn’t smart enough to go back to school, scared of not seeing my kids every day, scared that my car would break down and I wouldn’t be able to fix it, scared that I wouldn’t ever be enough for someone, scared that I would be alone in life, scared of sleeping in an empty apartment… It was like Fear had woven a web and attached itself to every aspect of who I was. I thought I was fine at the time, but looking back I’m not sure that’s true. I think the truth is that I was so accustomed to living in constant Fear that I started to get a little numb. Ok… a lot numb. I soaked in my time with the kids, I met new people, I did well at school, and I tried to find some kind of peace. Somewhere along the line my optimism became unresponsive, while my faith and strength seemed to be hanging on by a few fine threads. I gave up on life as I wanted it and resigned myself to being just numb enough to be happy-ish.
Then my dad died. I hate that word now: “died”. I try not to use it usually. It feels cold and devastating. It feels final even though I know my faith tells me it’s not. I hate that word just as much today as I did then. I don’t remember Fear swirling around in the aftermath of Dad’s passing. I don’t think there was room to be afraid of much else. I knew somewhere in my logical mind that things could always be worse, but it didn’t feel that way. Watching my kids grieve… grieving myself… it felt like emptiness – not emptiness that’s the simply lack of something, but emptiness like the kind of gaping hole that pain can bounce around without anything hindering it. I knew in my head that I still had things to be afraid of, but at the time I don’t remember feeling Fear at all. Pain had flooded my entire heart and I was too hurt and numb to think much of it.
The aftermath of Dad’s passing brought a lot of thought and emotion. I made a conscious effort to fight against the numbness that had been lining the walls of my heart. I gained perspective and awareness. Toby and I reconciled. I left school to be with the kids. Daily life was good again.
And that’s when it happened. Fear started slithering back into its old empty room. I’d felt the icy chill of it faintly now and then, like a shiver up your spine or being jolted awake from a dream, but today was the first time I truly noticed it. It was like when you catch a glimpse of a huge spider on your wall. You have no idea how it got there and how long it’s been there. After all, how could you have missed the arrival of such a ginormous, unwelcome guest? How does that happen with Fear?
I think I finally get it. Things are good. Things are great, actually. I don’t worry about our marriage crumbling again. I love Toby and I adore our children. My favorite people in the universe live within the same walls as me. I feel fulfilled and needed and valued. I love my day-to-day life… But maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s where my greatest Fear actually lives – in the cracks and crevices of the truly happy moments. Maybe my biggest fear is that these wonderful moments could be interrupted at any moment. Maybe Fear feeds on my experiences that joy is fleeting. I think Lisa Jewell says it well in the prologue of Then She Was Gone:
“Those months, the months before she disappeared, were the best months.
Really. Just the best.
Every moment presented itself to her like a gift and said,
Here I am, another perfect moment, just look at me,
can you believe how lovely I am?“
They’re the first words of the book and they hit me. Hard. I think deep down I’m just waiting for the next thing to happen. Fear may not be the constant companion that it’s been in the past. I hope it never is. Even so, its foul vapor wafts in occasionally to remind me that it hasn’t disappeared – kind of like when you’re driving on a clean, crisp summer day with the windows down and you pass a skunk on the side of the road… Unlike the smell of skunk, I don’t know that Fear will ever go away, but after all of my years fighting it, I think I’ve finally come up with a way to fight back.
I don’t take for granted that I’ll spend the next 50 or 60 years with my husband and children. I don’t know that we’ll have dozens of nights spent together at home talking or watching an episode of Friends. I’m not sure what morning will be the last one that Emma climbs in bed to snuggle with me and I don’t know which of Noah’s hugs will be our last. I can’t guess which of Toby and my quiet conversations about life and love and us as he hold me close right before we fall asleep with be our final one. I don’t want to think about the fact that someday I won’t spend our afternoons chatting with the kids about their homework and their lives. It’s impossible to imagine my life without any of those moments, but what life has taught me is that they are finite.
But the love within those moments is not. Our love is limitless… and I am thankful for every minute of it.
I’m thankful that I have a husband who is also my best friend. I’m thankful that yesterday Emma snuggled up next to me on the couch and told me that she loves talking to me about her life. I’m thankful that I got to watch Noah try to do the splits yesterday in a movement that I think surprised even Noah and made both of us giggle. I’m thankful that I got to hear all of our voices mix together in conversation yesterday… a life soundtrack that has become my favorite song.
Fear isn’t going anywhere. It may rebuild its little room in my heart or it may roll in and out like the tide. There may even be times in my life that it tries to run things again. I don’t know what will happen. I can’t know. But when it tries to seep in, you can bet I’ll do my best to fill those cracks with the moments of infinite love that I’ve been so gifted with.