THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN - 15 MAY 2014
On our leafy terrace in Lebanon, beside the civil war in Syria, my wife Kelly and I were entertaining an old friend, the new Beirut bureau chief for a major news organization. This woman was moving to town to cover the battle and was scouting houses before she brought her husband and young children. I swirled a large glass of wine, a father myself, and recounted how just a few weeks earlier, a massive, seven-hour shootout had raged just below our balcony, shell-casings bouncing off the asphalt. How I had cowered in our bedroom, checking periodically to ensure our three-year-old daughter was still asleep, listening as thousands of additional rounds of machine gun fire bounced off the walls outside. How Lebanese soldiers arrived in camouflaged armored personnel carriers, and how seven or eight grenades exploded when the bad guys down the block determined that they would fight to the death. How, instead of cowering beside me, my wife Kelly had put down her wine glass, grabbed a notebook and a flak jacket, and walked off into the night.
I didn’t imagine I’d actually frighten our guest, herself a correspondent, who, like Kelly, was expected to make the counterintuitive step of moving toward rather than away from gunfire. But as I described the night—how every loud noise since then had made me wonder if the battle had begun again, how I had refined my already elaborate plans for hiding and escape—my eye would not stop twitching, and somehow, in the way she looked at me, my eye twitching, I saw in this woman someone I recognized. She wasn’t giving me the blank stares or the sympathetic nod of misunderstanding or the bewildered sighs I usually got from Middle East hands. Many of those people were somehow more than human, and they never seemed capable of worrying. I watched her closely, going on and on about the sound of a grenade, the way I could not sleep, my sense that it was only a matter of time before someone broke down our door and shot me in the stomach. Was it the tightening of her grip on the chair, her sweaty brow, the mental checklist she herself seemed to be making as I talked?
“For people like us,” she said at last, taking a deep glug, gesturing with her glass, “Beirut is perfect. The constant soundtrack of worry inside our heads is finally and totally justified.”
We looked out over a black city twinkling with lights, at a thousand possibilities. I sipped, nodded, sipped. The woman leaned back in her chair, smiling.
A week or so later, I woke up to see my mom had issued a Facebook post that alluded to a problem with a recent mammogram. Send prayers, the post read.
I tried to remain calm, but as I cleaned up the kitchen after breakfast, I found myself slamming the coffee maker into the sink, banging my head against the cabinets, sighing with frustration. First a gun-fight, now cancer. Not only was I filled with worry, I was furious.
Kelly admitted she had seen the post the night before—it had been our ninth wedding anniversary, and with Kelly so busy covering Syria, it was a special treat to get some time together—and not wanting to ruin the evening celebration, for which we’d planned a meal at a new restaurant in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, she’d done what I never seemed able to do: she had pushed the bad news out of her mind.
I’d made it through the birth of our daughter in Saudi Arabia. Then my dad died abruptly of cancer, out of his mind with grueling pain. Then my wife began to work in various battle zones, and I’d had to learn how to be a single parent for weeks at a time—to hold Loretta down as she writhed with a high fever, conversing with a doctor who spoke only Turkish as he jabbed her in the stomach with a needle. Over the years I had become quite accustomed to treating bad news and adversity as a calling, as opportunities to find uncommon utility and beauty in the simple act of fearing what might happen next.
The state of my mom’s breast: Not knowing I should have been worrying for twelve whole hours was agony for a guy who’d practically become a bad news addict. I’d lost out on hours of preparation. And with the time difference, it’d be another several hours before she woke up. I retreated to the bedroom, closed the shutters, pulled up the covers, and ruminated.
All over again, I had this urgent yearning to act. I did the math for how long it would take to get to America, where I would stay, and which hospital was closest, and then I thought in vivid detail about the beeps and the squeaks and the smells and the tastes and all the life and death drama of doing battle in another hospital room. I thought about my mom’s house and her pets and her insurance and her will, and had she said something about being cremated? Did she have a special song she wanted us to play at the funeral? Sweat ran down my face and a car backfired—or maybe it was shots?—and finally my mom wrote saying that she was up. She’d call soon and we could talk.
It isn’t always pleasant for Kelly, all this worrying. A blond dynamo, when she was younger she’d ridden with Harley dudes and I met her in Cambodia, where she nonchalantly grilled shark with ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers, while I sat there, jaw dropped. She’d hunted pirates in Indonesia, been detained by the KGB in Russia, embedded with the rebels in Syria. My love for her was strong but my worries about everything were sometimes stronger. She has suggested we might be happier if I let go, if I “rolled with the flow.” But the flow, at least as she construes it, can be insane—involving as it does the whole battle helmet/flak jacket thing—and yet somehow she happily rolls with it.
We are different, Kelly and I. In the back of a taxi, for example, after her return from somewhere deadly, she’ll blithely daydream, planning the next trip to Syria or wherever, and I, meanwhile, will worry about whether or not the taxi driver will kidnap us. Or overcharge us. Or perhaps, if I am not vigilant enough, he might take a wrong turn causing us to be late.
I suppose I take some crazy pride in all this overthinking. This hand-clenching fear in the back of a taxi. In a way, I suppose I could even point, in theory, to all that this worrying makes possible, such as my punctuality. And, also what it prevents, such as us being kidnapped. But in reality, I admit, most of the time, the fact that I think too much probably leads more often to an increase in my personal misery—in a ratio disproportionate to the timeliness it occasions or the abductions it prevents.
The phone rang and I dashed into the living room, fretting at what I was about to learn yet eager to begin to plan, to think of every possible attack to keep my mom alive. Instead, her cheery voice asked about our anniversary, what we did, what did we drink, and oh, was it fun? And for a moment I was flooded with happiness and relief, reflecting on the nice night Kelly and I had, how we had been married for nine years, moving houses from one strange foreign capital to another, how in Beirut we were able to have a lovely dinner at a cool new restaurant, where a good Manhattan whiskey cocktail was on offer.
“Yeah, so for the Manhattan they used Jim Beam, which was fine, because, really, that’s a perfectly fine bourbon,” I said. And then I recounted the bartender’s deft use of an orange wedge. As I ran out of nice things to say about the anniversary, I began to regress into a sort of hyper-worry. And all along it hadn’t yet occurred to me, because there was a mix of self-involvement and arrogance in my worrying. Let’s admit it: My mom probably was capable of worrying all by herself.
“And, yeah, they used just the right amount of bitters, and…Mom, tell me about the goddamned scan.”
I could hear her breathing.
Mammogram. What a word. So innocuous and mellifluous, like some sort of nursery rhyme, or mnemonic. I loved her and loved my wife, and I was demanding the unreasonable. I had thought that if a son or husband wanted it bad enough, that if we all only tried hard enough, we could make our loved ones live forever—or at least longer than tomorrow or the next day. All around us, in the Middle East, friends were dying, people I’d never met were dying, and I had every reason in the world to be more realistic, but in this moment, I just couldn’t deal with my mom being sick.
“I think all they saw were the ghosts of an old scar,” she said. “It’s probably nothing. We’ll know more Monday, okay?”
Kelly and I were invited to a party that night in a lovely backyard garden. Everyone wore linen or chambray or something tasteful, and I tried not to think about ghosts or what it meant to say, “It’s probably nothing.” What it meant to roll with the flow. Across the border, in Syria, people were dying every day, by the hundreds. It hadn’t happened yet, but soon members of the press would start dying too. Our friend and colleague—my fellow worrier—was there, and she and I gave each other meaningful nods.
On the way back home, arm in arm, Kelly and I took turns pushing our daughter’s stroller down a city sidewalk, and though she was just three years old, healthy and pink, and we were still somewhat young ourselves, blessed and apparently hitting our stride, it nonetheless seemed, to me at least, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, the path before us stretched on and on into an endless darkness.
This piece was published by The Nervous Breakdown. Read the original here.