Bryony thinks it started with her father, because he was the one who stupidly got himself killed on that motorbike all those years ago. Her mother found immutable courage in the face of their loss, but Bryony just went numb. Relatives sought to offer condolences and food, but the teenage Bryony pushed them away with silence and lack of eye contact. Why get attached? That was her new philosophy. Everyone was going to leave you in the end.
But she did get attached. How can anyone avoid it? One evening it struck her in a flash that she had grown dependent on her mother for the strength she could not summon up within herself since that fatal accident. It was a dependence that was primordial, an expansion on every infant’s worst fear: that one day when Mother walks away, she really won’t be coming back.
Then followed the anxious projections into the future – years of worrying, always the worrying; each year her mother grew older, Bryony would feel time passing, creeping closer to the day when she would inevitably have to say goodbye to her – and Bryony would panic.
‘How will I ever know anything after you’re gone?’ she asked one day, running into her mother’s room like a storm. The woman looked at her, astonished, and Bryony explained through choking hysteria. Somewhere in the midst of the vocal explosions, her mother folded the girl, so close to womanhood herself, up into her arms just like she always did when her daughter was unhappy, and it just seemed to make it worse. Who will fold me into their arms and give me solace when Mum is gone? the thought flashed into her head. The tears were as unceasing as the epiphanies: her mother had taught Bryony literally everything. Whenever an idea or answer lay just on the tip of the girl’s tongue, Mum was the one who pushed the right words out of her mouth. She was the lone survivor of a family Bryony once happily allowed to slip away from her. She was her link to the past – after Mother, who could remind her of all the little details of all those stories Bryony sometimes found boring but, with age, grew to cling to as the most important treasures she could possess….
‘But why should it worry you so much?’ Mother asked her in return, and the thought Bryony had been suppressing, casting back to the dark archives of her unconscious for so long, suddenly overwhelmed her: after all, one day I’ll be gone myself, and then why I need to know all these things?
That was when her fear of death really began.
‘We all accept it intellectually,’ she speaks to the man who will one day be her husband, ‘but we don’t really believe it. Sure, we philosophise about it all the time. We form it into works of art, turn it into deities and rituals. On the surface, we’re so preoccupied with it that if an alien came down and visited us, it would think we face death with a brave face.’ The man – Andrew – nods, a faint smile of bemusement glimmering through his eyes. She’s been harping on about this subject for about two weeks now and he’s hoping she’ll get over it soon, before his bemusement turns to mild irritation. ‘But masking it in these ways distances us from it,’ she continues, either oblivious to his weariness or just unable to stop herself, ‘and deep down we think it’s something that only happens to other people.’
Andrew nods again, agreeing again – inwardly wondering how many times he will have to agree with her before she gives up on whatever mission she seems to be on. He does not understand (yet) that the first time it really hit her that she would die, it was like being handed her sentence – like being interrupted prematurely and unfairly – like Kafka’s ‘trial’. When once she was invincible, all in a moment death loomed right around the dark corners.
He doesn’t understand this yet – but when they’re married with a family and each year their children grow older, Bryony grows more afraid of time closing in on her…oh, he’ll understand then. He’ll even relate, a little.
‘It’s just the fear of the unknown,’ he tells her now. ‘We don’t know what happens when we die, and that scares us.’
‘Yes, that’s what everyone says,’ she rejoins, ‘but what if it’s more about the “known”?’ Andrew looks at her with question marks dancing in his eyes. She explains, ‘Without interpretation, we might just accept death without thought. But we have all these theories, these explanations, and they are what make it so terrifying. I mean, some people think it’s best to live life in a dreamy haze and pretend there is no death – as long as we’re cautious and keep ourselves out of harm’s way, we’ll live forever, like Tolkien’s elves.’
‘But not you?’ he finishes her train of thought.
‘Not me,’ she almost grins at him. ‘I need to be prepared, have a game plan.’ And she’s not ready (yet) to admit it to him, but this need for preparation has led her to imagine her own death endlessly.