When I was about four years old, my mother told me I was going to die. There was nothing wrong with me, it was just that up until then I had naturally assumed that I would live forever. A friend of the family, a man named King who my dad had known from Woodmont, had passed away. Mom was washing the dishes when she told me. I was in the hallway playing on the carpet. I thought about it for a second, then said, “We’re not going to die, are we, Mom?”
“Yes, sweetie, everybody has to die,” she told me. “But don’t worry. You won’t die for a long, long time, and neither will me or your Dad.” That wasn’t much comfort. I was very young, but it didn’t take much to figure out that “a long, long time” was going to run out eventually. Dying became the great terror of my life. It wasn’t death itself that scared me; it was what came after. My greatest fear was of non-existence. The fear would take hold of me physically, send me crying to my mother for a hug – a hug always made me feel better, at least for a little while. Once, I got scared while I was on the toilet and ran into the living room bawling with my pants around my ankles. Mom wasn’t there, just Dad. I told him I was crying because I thought someone had broken into the house. I was too embarrassed to tell him the truth.
When I was six, and just starting first grade, Mom and Dad got Star. She was a Labrador retriever, the runt of the litter, a coat like black satin, with one tiny patch of white on her chest. The day they brought her home, she hid under the kitchen table. She was so small and dark that when I got home from school I didn’t even notice her, even when Mom and Dad pointed right at her. Later that day, Mom and I took her outside. She went to the bathroom on the hillside, and I slipped and fell in it, stood up with a big brown streak of puppy shit on my jeans. For the first few weeks, Star would get scared at night. You could hear her whimpering all through the house. Mom would sleep with her on the kitchen floor to comfort her.
Eventually, Star developed a taste for pancakes and Snausages. We all treated her like another member of the family. At Christmastime, she had her own stocking – she opened her presents last, and usually all by herself. She loved to swim, and would chase a baseball all day if you let her. When Pap spent the summer of 1996 remodeling a room in the basement to be my new bedroom, he and Star became best friends. After my room was finished and I moved in, Star slept in there with me. Usually, she slept at the bottom of my bookcase near the door. When I was sick, she would sleep right at the foot of my bed. Sometimes, when my fear of death would seize me before I could fall asleep, I would get out of bed and kneel on the floor next to Star and give her a hug. That always made me feel better.
One night in July of 2001, after I had moved out of the house and into an apartment with my then-best friend and his then-girlfriend, lying alone in the dark and silence of my bedroom, I felt the old fear for the last time. My skin tingled, my chest tightened, my heartbeat quickened – everything that always happened. Then something different – a feeling of warmth started in my chest and spread outward over all my body. The fear was gone. I felt safe, comforted, calm. I felt as though there was nothing to fear, that no matter what happened, I was going to be okay. I rolled over on my side and fell asleep. The next morning the phone woke me up. It was Mom, calling to tell me that Star was dead.
She died in the early morning, with Mom beside her, just like when she was a pup. I met Mom and Dad at a cemetery in Williamsport later in the day, and we made the arrangements to have Star cremated. They put her ashes in a little wooden box. It has a brass plate on the front, engraved with Star’s name, her birth and death dates, and on the last line, “Our Little Girl.” Mom put it on the mantle in the living room, next to a painted glass carving of a Labrador retriever.
Star died at the same time as I lay in bed terrified, feeling my heart beat through my chest. I’ve come to think of that warm feeling that chased away the fear as a last hug from my dog, her way of telling me not to be afraid, that she was all right, and I would be, too. That was over five years ago, and the fear hasn’t returned. It’s still there. Sometimes at night before I fall asleep, I feel it creeping over me, like fingers closing into a fist. But now, there is always the warmth to drive it away.
There are tiny voices in my head. They have been with me since I was four years old, and will be with me the rest of my life. They whisper in the dark, tell me that a day will come when my life will be behind me and only a thoughtless void will lie ahead of me. For most of my life I was helpless against them, but now I have Star. She sits next to my bed, watching, barking to drown out the whispers when I get too afraid.