Years ago, a Ouija board told me I would die at 17. I was able to use the board alone, so no one had seen that answer spell itself out, and I told no one. I was 15, in the 10th grade. The idea of dying at 17 seemed both crazy and entirely possible and believable. What purpose could the spirit on that board have for lying about such a thing? So, I believed it. Two years to live.
Believing I knew I was dying didn’t change anything in the way I went through my life. I thought about it, but I didn’t do anything about it or do anything because of knowing it. The board had said I’d die of leukemia, which should have given me the idea of seeing my doctor. But I didn’t, and I didn’t spend any time in the reference section of the library reading up on the disease I was supposed to be dying from. I did nothing.
Except tell a friend, maybe two. Whoever I told didn’t hold onto my secret, and soon a lot of people knew – more of my friends, other kids at school, their parents, my mother.
My mother came home from some parent meeting asking questions. The next day in social studies, a girl sneered as she passed my desk and said, “That was some leukemia you had, huh?”
The scandal of being revealed as a liar blew over ridiculously quickly. My nonsense was news for perhaps the span of a class period. At home, I told my mother where my diagnosis had come from, and she promptly revoked my Ouija board privileges. End of story.
But I never actually stopped believing I was dying. My mother telling the moms at the PTA meeting that I didn’t have leukemia didn’t mean I wasn’t about to be stricken with the disease and go into rapid decline. I stopped talking about my soon-coming death but held onto the certainty of it.
Until I forgot about it. I finished high school. I went to college. During the summer of my junior year, on a train through the Pyrenees, it dawned on me that I was twenty years old, three years past the age I was supposed to have died.
Why was it so easy for me to believe some random hocus pocus about having a disease I would surely have been aware of having? Leukemia is no silent killer, sneaking up on its victims and snatching them in an instant. How could I convince myself I was sick when there was nothing abnormal happening in my body? I must have wanted to believe it, or it wouldn’t have been such an easy sell. What made me want to believe such a thing?
And how did I then just forget, move on as if nothing had happened and only years later realize I’d lived past my deadline?
In my late 30s, I needed fibroid surgery. Nine years earlier, I’d had a batch of tumors excised from my abdomen. My experience with that first surgery had been difficult, but I’d come through swimmingly. The closer I got to the second surgery, however, the more convinced I became that I wouldn’t survive. There was no reason for my certainty, but I was frozen by it. I could barely function for thinking about my soon-coming death. I never knew I had such a terror of dying until that summer.
When I was at the point of canceling the surgery, I told my sister. I told her because I wanted her to help me prepare for death, for what would happen after I was gone. I wanted her to promise to go through my apartment and clear out things I didn’t want my mother to have to see or deal with in her grief – my journals, my sex toys, etc.
My sister agreed to do a pre-parent sweep of my house. She suggested a handy system for me to use for organizing her sweep: put a sticky note on anything I wanted thrown out, and she’d take care of it. She didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince me I was going to be fine. She assured me that the sticky-note plan wouldn’t be necessary, but she also immediately agreed to help me. Together, we would spare my mother learning things about me it would hurt or sadden her to know.
I started tacking notes to things around the house, but I didn’t get far. Somehow, as improbable as it still seems to me, my sister’s participation in my planning was exactly what I needed. I started labeling my belongings and then, almost immediately, I forgot about it, and forgot about my impending demise.
I had my surgery. It went perfectly well. I recuperated. I went back to my day-to-day. About a year later I was hunting through an old journal hunting up a story-start I wanted to flesh out, and I found the plan I’d written out for my funeral – what songs to play, who I hoped would speak, what I didn’t want folks to do. I didn’t remember having sketched it out, had entirely forgotten my certainty that the surgery would be the end of me.
Twice in my life, I have been entirely convinced that I was soon to die … and just as quickly, I have completely forgotten about my impending death and blithely moved on to some other thing. How is that possible? What is that?
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.