When My Mother and I Were Obsessed with Death

For four years, my mother had a crippling fear of death. It started during her first bout with breast cancer. While recovering from her mastectomy, she insisted on driving my father to and from work, so that if he died in a car accident she'd be there to say good-bye. Nobody in our family was allowed to drive in bad weather, lest the vehicles hydroplane and we die. Christmas traditions were banned; anything that reminded my mother of the passing of time reminded her of death. She objected to my teen sleeping habits: "Just lying there all morning, like you are dead. How do I know you are not dead?" Chastised for her morbidity, my mother would snap, "You don't understand."

I didn't understand. Not until she had cancer for the second time, when my mother became the world's most cheerful chemotherapy patient. She had made a full recovery before and was confident she would do it again. She told me not to worry. That was when I became afraid—and had one of those familiar moments of self-recognition all daughters have when they realize they are becoming their mothers.

I realized I was becoming my mother when I became obsessed with death.

To fear death, you must stare into the abyss of human non-existence while believing that you or someone you love is really, truly about to die. With dread, you will obsessively imagine the last moment in which that person is living—followed by a moment in which their entire being vanishes, leaving behind only an embarrassment of flesh, wadded up under a sheet on a hospital bed or slumped against the steering wheel beside a deflating airbag.

The first time my mother had cancer, I did not believe she would die. I'm not sure if I was in denial, or if my subconscious mind had recognized the need for counterbalance in our family dynamic. My main concern was that my mother's transformation into a moody, death-obsessed pessimist might be permanent. I feared she would spend the rest of her sure-to-be long life unhappy.

But four years later, when the cancer returned and took root in my mother's remaining breast, she had no fear at all.

Smiling, she rejected nausea-suppressing medications while nurses marveled at her calm. Giggling, she told me how a particular course of chemotherapy had, as a side effect, awakened an appetite for spicy food for the first time in her life. The toxic chemicals coursing through her veins had actually expanded her horizons. She realized she liked Indian food.

Into the sunshine of my mother's optimism, my fear of death emerged dark and swift. It knocked me down—literally knocked me into my bed where I would lie paralyzed for hours on end, obsessively contemplating death. I imagined the deaths of family members, and what I would do in the aftermath. I wrote frightfully detailed to-do lists for the events of various deaths.

If both parents died in a car crash, I would fly home, take a cab to my parents' house, pay the cabbie, get out of his car, walk up to the porch, set my suitcase on the porch, walk around the house to the place my parents hide their extra key, extract the extra key (note to self: check that key is still there and not too rusty when next at home), walk back to the porch, use the key to open the door, enter the door, shut the door, lock the door. If necessary, sit down next to the door and let self cry.

I knew who to call to get the family finances in order; how to dispose of old clothes; who to invite to various funerals, depending on the nature of my loved ones' deaths. If my brother's girlfriend murdered him, I would not invite as many of their mutual friends. If my mother murdered my brother, I would invite fewer maternal relatives. If I murdered my brother, I would recuse myself from the proceedings.

As a child I had many nightmares. To comfort myself, I reasoned that if I dreamed something horrible, then the horrible thing could not happen in real life. What are the chances that the exact monster I saw in my dream existed in reality? It would be too big a coincidence.

From this dream logic, I extracted a second principle: If I visualized something in vivid detail, it could not come true. It was a reverse-logic The Secret, layered with masochism. If I didn't want to laugh so hard that I wet my pants in front of the boy I liked, I had to imagine myself laughing so hard that I wet my pants in front of the boy I liked. I had to imagine the look of disgust on his face. I had to imagine the feeling of shame.

During the year that I obsessively imagined my loved ones' deaths, I returned frequently to the dream logic of my childhood. By then, however, I knew my thoughts had no impact on reality. If my mother died of cancer, it would not matter whether I had imagined it in detail or never thought about it at all. I would be powerless, and my mother would be gone.

After undergoing a second mastectomy and a year of chemotherapy, my mother made a full recovery. My fear of death receded; my obsessive thinking waned. I came out of the year with a few notebooks full of morbid lists and the knowledge that, one way or another, I was becoming my mother — in fear, in dread, in perverse optimism, and in the inevitability of our deaths.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.