This is me as a kid: I sleep in a ball, hugging my knees to my chest. I pull the covers over my head and face the wall. This way, if a murderer comes in to kill me, I won’t have to face him. He can get the thing over with before I know it’s coming. By day, I am restless legs and nervous habits: picking the skin on my lips, peeling back my nails. In third grade, my teacher calls my parents to say that I’ve been squinting in class and might need glasses. But my vision is perfectly clear. The squinting is a facial tic, an outward manifestation of my inner disquiet.
My muscles are wound so tightly that my violin teacher gives me extra exercises to loosen up: “You’ll never learn vibrato if you’re squeezing so hard.” But I excel at track and field, my body like a dormant coil waiting to spring awake in the 100-meter dash. I am safe and fed and happy, but I am worried all the time.
Looking back, it’s tempting to say that all this worrying was prophetic, spurred by a vague premonition of some future tragedy. That’s how the story goes if I tell it from back to front. There would be a series of events to validate my worrisome nature, but before those things happened, I was just born that way.
When my mom got cancer for the first time, I was 12. Until then my worry had been refracted in a hundred splintered rays, diluted by its lack of focus. Now it was a concentrated beam of light, shining intently on those mutated cells. Science tests and playground squabbles had been a dress rehearsal for the main event. My worries now were grander and graver, punctuated by the sound of retching in the bathroom, the urgent trips to the clinic for hydration.
My mother’s death was, at that time, not imminent. Stage 1. Clean margins. Good prognosis. Cancer is a spectrum, muted fear and discomfort on one end and absolute doom on the other. There’s a lot of nuance in between. But try explaining nuance to a 12-year-old who believes that an intruder might kill her in her sleep. Worry was my default, and life continued to confirm that it was warranted.
When I was 16, with my mom approaching the five-year anniversary of her remission, my dad got “the worst headache of his life.” These are the words he used to describe it. These are the words a lot of people use to describe a ruptured brain aneurysm.
It was the fall of my junior year of high school. I was studying for the SATs, stressing about where to apply for college and struggling to get the concepts of precalculus to stick in my math-averse brain. I spent a dozen hours a week on the soccer field and tried to figure out what it meant to be someone’s girlfriend. I was already on edge when my dad went in for a 10-hour neurosurgery with 50-50 odds of survival.
While my mom’s cancer and the treatments that followed had stretched over months, my dad’s aneurysm was touch-and-go from the start. Forty percent of people with a ruptured aneurysm die on the spot. Two-thirds of survivors have lifelong cognitive impairment. There had been a ticking time bomb inside of him that not even he had known about. It blew up, and all we could do was wait to see how the debris would fall.