Worry Lines

How I learned to keep worrying.

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One advantage of having younger friends used to be that they were more cheerful and optimistic than I was.  It seemed then that the decade between us had insulated them from all the bad news I heard, both in the media and from my older friends.  But now that 20 years or so have passed, these friends just about caught up to me.

   

When I said I planned to write about this topic, one of my friends — perky still, though more pessimistic than she used to be — asked me to change her name. She had also told me (whenever I asked) that she doesn’t read what I write because she’s too stressed, so she’ll never know whether or not I’ve changed her name. I’ll honor her wishes anyway and call her Susie. Besides, she might have a sudden dip in her stress level.

Years ago when she was a young sprout of 50, she complained to her father that she didn’t feel well. His response,  “Get used to it.”

“Get used to it” turned out to be great advice. It certainly outlasted my mother’s, “It’ll be better by the time you get married,” which was meant to indicate some distant, as yet un-planned event, in fact, something that might never happen. Come to think of it, it might be time to bring that one back.

Another bit of wisdom came from my grandmother’s response to my dad when he expressed concern about the gangs in her neighborhood. She didn’t distinguish between fear and worry. Dad quoted her often to me, “You can’t live in fear.”

I suppose I must have expressed some worry to him or he wouldn’t have kept reminding me of my grandmother’s advice. I can’t remember what I worried about then.  Maybe it’s just as well. I’ve learned, however, that you can live in fear.

I think what my grandmother meant is that it’s not helpful to live in fear. But it could have been that she was referring to Bitachon, a trust in God.

What I’ve discovered is that I usually worry about the wrong things. My worry doesn’t go far enough.

Take, for example, my concern about my parents. I wanted them to move to the city where they would live on one floor (no steps) and I could see them more frequently; however, I worried about how they would adjust to city living and if they would make new friends if they lived in an apartment.

But before that could happen, my father died after surgery to replace a broken hip.

In the years that my mother was a widow, we searched for a retirement community for her. I worried that she was too independent to be happy in a place with a strict regiment, that she would hate eating institutional cooking.  She expressed interest in a series of places, and we went to visit some of them. Each one was farther from where I lived. How would I visit her with the regularity that I hoped to continue? What would happen when she grew ill?

After some time I figured out what these homes all had in common with one another. They were not yet open. As soon as they were ready for occupants, she talked with enthusiasm about the next under construction.

As she grew frailer, finding a place became more urgent. I, in turn, became more worried. Would she like to live in a lovely, large apartment right down the hall from me? She would not.

She was never confined to bed on oxygen as I worried she would be. Nor was she in a hospital, not allowed to smoke. I worried that if she had a heart attack when I was with her, I wouldn’t be able to resuscitate her.

As always, it was something worse.

Perky Susie used to look on the bright side. Once we ran into a woman I knew from college. This woman was ecstatic because she’d found the perfect mate, and they’d bought a perfect house in a perfect suburb, and they were living the perfect life together. Perfect. When we left her, Susie turned to me and said, “See, it’s not hopeless. You can find a good man.”

We hadn’t just had proof of anything of the sort, I told her.

I probably glared at the poor dear. She meant well. How would she know my ecstatic acquaintance was a lesbian?

Susie’s response when I told her was to remind me that I’d been wrong when I’d thought that a man I’d been dating had grown bored or dissatisfied with me because he hadn’t called me in a long time. There was a perfectly good reason that he hadn’t called, having nothing to do with his losing interest in me, though she couldn’t remember what it was. “He didn’t call,” I snapped, “because he was dead. Don’t you remember?” I’d told her the whole story years before.

Now things are different. My friends have caught up to me.

The last time I expressed a worry to her, Susie said, “It’ll be something else.” She had that tone in her voice that signaled me to drop my topic. We had something else to discuss.

It isn’t that you shouldn’t worry because everything will be all right; rather you shouldn’t bother to worry because whatever you’re worrying about won’t happen. It’ll be something else. Knowing this might start a new trend in worrying, a kind of carry-your-umbrella-so-it-won’t-rain sort of method to ward off disaster. Pick what you’re afraid of happening, focus your worry — and then what you’re worrying about won’t happen.

You won’t be safe, however. Something else will happen. And it’s likely to be worse.

Sometimes it’s not “one thing or another,” but “one thing and then another.” But I can find some comfort in worrying. For example, when I travel, just in case (of whatever) I always like to arrive well in advance of dark, a goal is easier to achieve in the summer with longer days.

So, it’s Christmas Day 2010, and a blizzard is on its way. We’re heading to a house that’s sure to have a few things to take care of, such as getting a food supply for a few days. I worried about being stranded without food — last year the neighborhood got 60 inches of snow in 48 hours with one storm following another!

But I didn’t worry that there’d be no heat. The house was cold, so cold that the little needle in the thermostat was down as far as it could be. That cold.

Christmas Day. Saturday night. A blizzard on its way. Pipes possibly ready to burst. What were the chances of getting the heat fixed?

$147 an hour. Would that be all right? $147 an hour would be fine, thank you.

While we waited for technician to arrive, I didn’t want to do anything except sit in a chair, bundled-up, happier than I’d been in a long time because we didn’t have heat, a blizzard was on its way, and someone was coming to fix the furnace.

Truth? I did worry that he wouldn’t have the parts that would be needed. But I worried only a smidge. • 10 January 2011

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.

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