In May 1968, when I was five years old, my upstairs neighbor, a girl only a year older than I, was struck by a car and killed. In the one photo I have of Lisa, as a guest at my backyard birthday party the previous summer, she sits at the long table among our other friends and squints, unsmiling, at something in the distance. The image fits my vague memory of my friend as a quiet, overly serious child who seemed most at home with the grown-ups. Lisa tended to fade into the background for me as I trailed after my vibrant older sister, or inserted myself into games of Red Light, Green Light and Freeze Tag with the more raucous kids on our block. But after Lisa died, I felt her presence everywhere. She heated my scalp with a searing gaze from the sky as I drew with chalk outside what was once our shared two-family house. She watched me in my room to make sure I didn’t touch the tiny red Barbie purse she’d accidently left among my things.
On the evening of the accident, I saw Lisa’s mother stand in our vestibule and cry, “My baby, my baby . . . ” surrounded by the other mothers on our block. What I learned from this was that love isn’t enough to keep any of us safe and here. Life is like a library book, I came to understand while still in kindergarten. Even if you aren’t finished with it, when the due date comes, you have to give it up. For years after Lisa’s death, I’d wake up in the morning and marvel at my own luck and longevity. I made it to six, to seven, to eight, I’d note, pressing my nose against a skinny arm to breathe in my own warm, oatmealy scent.
Here is something else I grasped after witnessing those first moments of my friend’s mother’s devastation. Everyone I loved was mortal too. This knowledge made me vigilant. I began to listen for my parents’ slippered footfalls as they moved from room to room, and to watch the rise and fall of my sister’s breathing as she lounged on her bed across from mine, flipping through magazines.
“Kenna hora,” my mother used to say, a Yiddish phrase that, to the best of my understanding, asks the evil eye to look away. She’d attach it to any mention of our forward moving lives or good health. “Andra’s already taller than I am, kenna hora.” “Ona’s got a good appetite, kenna hora, for such a tiny girl.” We’re not talking to you, Evil Eye. Don’t get any ideas.
By the time I was a teenager, I’d roll my eyes whenever my mother intoned those words on my behalf. I thought of the practice as superstitious nonsense. But the truth is, I’d already developed my own habit of magical thinking and it is with me still.
“Travel safe,” I call whenever someone I care about departs from me, actually believing that by uttering those words I am offering a modicum of protection. I say it to my friend as she climbs into her car for the short drive back to her apartment, to my husband before he walks the few feet from our house to the train station, and to my son each time he embarks on the hours long bus ride back to his college campus. “Travel safe,” I intone, taking comfort in the notion that I’ve done what I can to ward off harm.
Still, I worry, which I’ve also managed to convince myself helps shield my loved ones from whatever I’m afraid may happen.
Back when I was pregnant with Ethan, I had a fantasy during an ultrasound test that they’d offer a take-home version of the machine so I might check in on my baby every hour or so. As it was, I spent the entire three-quarters of a year terrified that I’d inadvertently do damage to the cluster of cells rapidly dividing inside me. Maybe the exhaust I inhaled while walking on a city avenue would do it, or radiation from the computer monitor I used at work, or the wine in the vinaigrette I’d absently dribbled on the salad I’d already devoured at lunch. This made what could have been a blissful period in my life impossibly stressful. And the thing is, I believed it was my job as an expectant mother to fret about these things. By fretting I was acknowledging the evil eye, which was the only way I knew to keep it at bay.
“You realize the reason I worry is that I love you so much,” I’ve explained to Ethan, sounding exactly like my own mother.
“I know, Mom,” he has responded. “It’s just that it’s an annoying kind of love.”
For a time, I kept a small glass vial of the Bach Flower Remedy, Red Chestnut, on my spice rack. According to the company website, this remedy counters “over-concern for the welfare of loved ones.”
Over-concern for the welfare of loved ones. When I found myself caught in a cycle of worrying, I’d release a few drops of the elixir onto my tongue in an attempt to quiet my fears. If it worked at all, it was only some of the time and subtly. Eventually, I forgot about that little vial, and when I finally thought to reach for it again the contents had expired.
Everyone I love is mortal. This truth that I learned in such a heartbreaking way when I was five years old is always with me, much the way Lisa seemed to be when she first left this earth nearly five decades ago. The awareness hovers near me when I kiss my husband goodnight. It peers over my shoulder when I exchange sweet text messages with my son. Hold tight to this, it likes to warn me, but I’ve begun to realize that it’s the very attempt to clutch onto those I love that’s at the root of all my anxiety. The antidote, which can’t be bottled, has something to do with loosening my grip and once again marveling, kenna hora, at what I have right now.