They never knew I was gone.
As an adult, I have always felt a deep sense of loneliness and a terrible fear of that loneliness as if left unchecked or not constantly battled, it will somehow devour me. It wasn’t until I started writing that I began to realize that it’s been there, a constant companion, since the beginning.
I was talking to my therapist about it and happened to mention an old habit of mine, playing dead, which I assumed every child did for attention. She looked at me with one of those looks that said, “Uh oh, he doesn’t know this is going to add long weeks to our work together.” Not like I hadn’t seen that look before.
Anyway, by the time I was about four years old, I would play dead. You see, she liked scary 50s and 60s Saturday afternoon thrillers and horror movies, Vincent Price, wax museum, Carnival of Souls, Christopher Lee...and because I worshipped her, and because she made me, I would cuddle up on the sofa with her and we would watch them together. I knew what dead people looked like because I had a black-and-white-Saturday-afternoon-low-budget-horror-flick-TV education. The problem was that dead people, even in those old movies, had cold, filmy, open eyes and well, no matter how good a little actor I was, I couldn’t pull that off. No, the eyes had to be closed. But I could hold my breath forever and fall dramatically, landing in just the right, slightly contorted pose, and stay there. For a really long time. No seriously, a really long time. For four or five years old, I was incredibly patient and determined. And the prize, after all, was her attention. So maybe I couldn’t be a convincing dead boy, but seizure boy, or heart attack boy, or coma boy (my favorite because the cause could be sooo many things!)? All these I could pull off without breaking a sweat...
So in the hallway, or the walkway into the kitchen, I would look around to make sure no one could see the fall, and then thud...down I’d go. And then I’d wait. I’d wait with anticipation knowing that she would be coming through the living room with laundry from the basement or heading to the kitchen to check on dinner and her eyes would be drawn to the statue still, lifeless body of her little boy and she would fall to her knees and gather me up in her arms as best she could (because everyone knows dead people weigh more!). And in her shock and grief, she would begin to promise things if only I would breathe. Please just breathe. I’ll take you to the zoo this weekend and of course we can go to Grandma’s every day and you don’t have to eat ground meat ever again, if only you BREATHE!!! And then, as if her motherly love made it so, the breath would come. Slowly of course, and jilted. That was important. A few sounds now...not making sense. And then, the moment, eyes open, looking up into the eyes of the greatest and most powerful Mother who ever was. She would never let me be hurt or sick or alone. And having experienced all of this, I would let her in on my game. And she would feign anger and tell me I had frightened her so and to promise never to do that again. And I would promise and I would keep that promise. And we would have chocolate chip cookies and milk.
Yes, that’s how it happened. Always. In my mind. In the warm imagination of a child. But somehow, no matter how skilled my fall or how broken my pose, how shallow and rare my breathing, her eyes were never drawn to that still little body. She walked by or over. Not irritated or angry. Never a reaction or discussion that I can recall. You know, it was sometimes cold, and always lonely on that floor. And although I went back to playing dead on many occasions, the strategy failed to elicit the response I hoped for every single time. I suppose I was never convincing enough to fool her. That’s what I tell myself. Because the alternative seems so much worse:
What if I was?