One of my early childhood memories – I might have been four or six or eight, I don’t know, but certainly no older than eight; I think younger – is of lying in bed, alone in the dark, thinking about death. (I was a scream at the birthday parties.) I say alone in the dark because I was not alone in the room. On a twin bed parallel to my own, only feet away – after the whispered teases and tortures that are youthful brotherly love had ebbed into silence – lay my older brother, Jeff. Was he awake as I was, thinking thoughts, perhaps, like mine? I don’t know. Loneliness exists most profoundly in the knowledge of other people. So as a very young child, barely at the start of my life, I was already concerned with my end.
The room I lay in I shared with Jeff until the age of eight, when our older sister, Sharyn, married and moved out. Then I moved into her smaller, separate bedroom, and Jeff retained the larger room for himself. This helps me further place the memory I write of, because we moved from this second floor garden apartment on Hillside Avenue, in the Bell Park Manor-Terrace cooperative apartments of Queens Village, in New York City, when I was nine, and what I call a memory is really an impression: an image of the room around me and an idea – my thoughts of death – connected with it. I cannot say for sure if this experience – my lying in bed at night and thinking of death – occurred only once or multiple times, though I think the latter. How much of childhood is retained, in fact, in this kind of punctuated continuum – a self forged from the shards of forgetfulness into the illusion of unbroken identity? How many days do we actually recall from our first ten years, or of any decade of our lives? The rest of our days dissolve into a kind of mist that delineates the border between our selves – appearing in continuous sameness – and everything else.
So I have this impression of me in the room, and it is connected to another, similar impression. In these garden apartments there were generally a lower and an upper apartment that shared a common street door and vestibule, and these were immediately adjacent to another, identical pair of apartments that mirrored the arrangement. Socializing for the adults among these apartments was easy, without being far from the children. In this second memory, Jeff and I are also in our beds in the darkness, meant to be asleep. But I do
not sleep. For the earth is being taken by storm. Terrible winds blow. Lightning flashes illumine the sky. Hard rain rattles the window panes, and thunder rocks all my sense of safety in life. In shadows gigantically projected over the walls and ceiling, the tree outside the window across the room thrashes wildly, its limbs whipped by fearful forces, every shaded filament of leaf and branch trembling violently over the tempest lighted room. And at the base of the tree, a story below, lies the grave of the family parakeet, whose loss, not long before, was my first experience of death. The world, I am feeling in my core, beyond the secure boundary marked out and monitored by mother and father, can be a dangerous and dreadful place.
At some point in the midst of this – whether it is a single night, or some several discrete instances (of me in bed in the dark, in my childhood bedroom, in a storming and frightening world, all of them merged into one) and what now follows, I don’t know – the door to the room opens, and new but familiar shadows extend obliquely, dramatically over the same wall, the same screen of my emotive life. My parents back from their time away have come to check on the children in bed, who as far as they know are safely asleep. But I, in a pretense of sleep, through the eyelash-hooded slits of my barely opened eyes, can see their heads and torsos, back lit in the doorway by the hall light, and their long silhouettes hovering over the wall like the shadow of a mother bird imprinting on its nested young, who cease now their trembling and sink back in relief at the return of their safety and their source.
The sense-memory of that safety has remained with me for as long as the palpable origin of my fear, but I knew even then which would prevail. On those nights that I lay still in the darkness imagining death – imagining it, as if death were an experience to be sensuously constituted in life – I would try to experience the nothing, the absence of myself. I had, too, at that young age, (whichever age it was) a clear notion of eternity – the conventional one, at any rate, of unending time. Cursed as I was with a too vivid imagination, if I could not quite disappear myself, I could conjure a total sensory darkness and a near nullity of mind (except for the mental process of invoking the nullity), and I would extend this sense of oblivion as far into my vague mental enumeration of years as it seemed my head could hold: not to exist – to curl up on the floor with a movie, feel the sun or wind on my skin, lie cozily in bed at night, be surrounded by my family – not for a very, very, very long time, longer than anything I or anyone else, now or in the future, actually could under any circumstance imagine – but ever again, forever. Never.
I would expand and deepen the contradictorily vivid sense of this eternal nothingness until I shuddered with the awful dread of it, and I would turn with utter and immediate relief to the warmth of my sheets, the smell of my pillow – myself, my mother, home – and the understanding that death, for me, was so far in the future as to be its own kind of virtual eternity away.Follow Me