My Mother’s (Terrified) Daughter

Growing up, my mother’s fearlessness let me pretend I was brave. But as she’s grown more anxious, I feel the power of her protection lift.

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of...

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Only idiots aren’t somewhat afraid of flying. Planes are inherently unpleasant, but not enough people recognize them for the aerodynamic death-cannons that they are. Your body is not supposed to be launched into the air and suspended for hours on end, sustained only by scalding lasagnas that taste suspiciously like hot soap. Do you know how many planes crash every year? Neither do I, but I know the answer is more than one, WHICH IS ENOUGH.

I didn’t used to be afraid of flying. When I was a kid taking vacations with my parents, it was fun and exciting. But in the last five or six years, it’s become less of a minor inconvenience and more like a snippet from that video that kills people in The Ring. My stomach churns and my palms sweat and I think about all the things I should have said before this plane nose-dives and the army finds parts of my body scattered across the Prairies. My legs in Fort McMurray, my arms in Regina, my anus somewhere in Edmonton.

My boyfriend finds my fear of flying both hilarious and inconvenient. Recently, we travelled to Southeast Asia for two weeks, the furthest I’ve been from home in more than a decade. As we made our way from Toronto to Chicago, then Chicago to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Bangkok, he was a paragon of serenity. While our plane took off, I squeezed his meaty forearm like I was tenderizing a hamhock, and he just gazed dreamily out the window. “The beach will be nice,” he said, the plane doing a subtle but intestine-tightening dip as it tried to soar higher. Hamhock is all the things I am not. He is fearless, while I am one panic attack away from having to quit my job and live in a mystery tunnel. (I didn’t build it, I’m just saying I understand the instinct.) I thought about all the porn I forgot to wipe from my computer, which my mother would find after my death. She would know that her daughter was never a good person.

I don’t know if I was ever brave, but I think my mother was.

*

My father didn’t exactly tell my mother he wanted to emigrate from India before they got married. She was already pregnant when he left for Canada, and she followed him a year or so later, 24 or 25 years old, fingers crossed that he had figured his shit out. She used to travel a lot, to Greece or St. Thomas or New York, returning with photos of herself perched precipitously near the edge of a cruise ship, or wearing an absurd leather jacket, or sitting real close to my dad in a dimly lit restaurant. Mom would jump into the deep ends of pools and let me hang off her shoulders when I was too little to know how to swim. Mom would rent a Sea-Doo and drag me onto the back of it and drive too fast. Mom put her bare hand flat on a pan to check if it was hot enough. (What if it was? Mom, you animal!) Mom sucked marrow out of a lamb bone with shocking fervour, then stuck her tongue through the hollow to tease you about how unbelievably gross it was. Mom’s arthritis got worse but she kept cooking lamb curries so spicy they ripped the roof of your mouth clean off and jogging five kilometres a day. Mom yelled. Mom was not afraid of you.

Then, her parents got sick. Gone were the vacations, traveling was relegated to going to India and back, and she stopped doing much of anything else. She didn’t have the energy to fight with her kids for the first time in nearly two decades. She kept cooking, but now she prepared soulless dishes of rice and potatoes and eggs. I’d sometimes catch her staring out the big window in our living room. When I’d ask her what she was thinking about, it was never a good memory or a funny story or a thing she wanted to do. She was thinking about her mom, so she’d cry into her 3 p.m. tea. Her parents died eleven months apart. She was already estranged from her older brother and had little extended family left. The world closed in on her that much more.

*

I am still young enough to have the luxury of taking vacations because I want to, not because someone far away has taken ill. A two-week holiday is supposed to be restful. Hamhock and I were in Thailand and Vietnam just long enough to see a few beaches and temples and eat some noodles and get drunk four or five times.

I have to work hard to not be afraid of everything, so I knew a two-week trip to a foreign landscape would be a challenge. I didn’t expect, however, that it would be like flipping through a catalogue of all my greatest fears. It was a wonderful time, and yet, a nightmare.

On our first day, I got 30 mosquito bites across my shin and feet. The bites got red and dry and itchy, filling my skin with poison and making my ankle swell up so I couldn’t walk. I ate a scorpion, which I was sure would give me whatever illnesses fried scorpions cause (scorpion hepatitis?) and later, I drank wine fermented with a cobra which tastes, unsurprisingly, like a death rattle, and gave me cobra-tinged heartburn for two hours. Over the course of our vacation, more than a few men grabbed my wrist, yammered in Thai, and tried to guide me towards their boats or scooters.

I’m afraid of water, so naturally, several of our destinations were only accessible by boat. And not real boats with life jackets and horns, but dinky wooden ones with a motor too big to actually be supported by the vessel. They looked like toys and could capsize if you mounted one too aggressively. They sped too fast and would tilt and rock and splash me with water. We’d get too close to other boats and scrape their sides. During the ride, Hamhock talked about wanting a big beer; I just wanted to see licenses and insurance paperwork and Thai safety regulations.

While Hamhock tilted his head back and let the sun wash over his skin, I clutched any surface of the craft I could reach as it crashed down against the water. I’d let out little “eeps” while trying not to look horrified and every so often, he’d turn to me and ask, “Are you okay?” I would yell “YES, THANK YOU, I AM JUST FINE AND VERY CASUAL.” Once we got to the island, Hamhock jumped overboard before we made a full stop. I sat on the side of the boat until I had the gall to make the three-foot drop into the ocean. He swam around and let the water cool him down; I flailed towards him and hung off his back like a kinkajou just trying to stay alive long enough to be sent to a nice, temperature-controlled zoo where all the other animals have also been vaccinated.

My stomach churns and my palms sweat and I think about all the things I should have said before this plane nose-dives and the army finds parts of my body scattered across the Prairies. My legs in Fort McMurray, my arms in Regina, my anus somewhere in Edmonton.

We went snorkelling. I had spent days before psyching myself up to swim in open, unregulated waters with choppy waves and salt that rubs itself into all the tiny cuts you routinely get on your body. I wore a life jacket. I saw a reef shark—a vegetarian—and panicked so fiercely that I smashed my knee on a chunk of coral, then worried that the shark would smell the blood, take a sharp right, and suddenly decide he liked the taste of Brown Coward.

Just to be clear, I can swim. My mom made me take six years of swimming lessons. And yet, who knows? What if this time I experienced temporary paralysis? Hamhock would lift me and threaten to dunk my head under and I’d start kicking and punching and scratching until he gently released me, head still dry. He thought this was playful, the kind of thing cute couples do in Instagram videos, whereas I thought it was the opening scene in a Dateline reenactment of my inevitable drowning.

“Were you always like this?” he asked before diving under water and not coming up for 10, 15 seconds, each of them a lifetime for me.

*

My mother has been quiet for the last few years. She doesn’t get as fiery as she used to and it seems like that’s a function of her waiting for another shoe to drop. I moved away and she grew anxious. She doesn’t like it when I fly, or take the subway far from my apartment, or cross busy intersections, or eat new things, or talk to strangers, or get the flu, because any of these things could eventually lead to my death. She sends texts when she hears it’ll snow in my city, checking in and making sure that I have “enough food and socks.” She calls when there’s a power outage in a neighbouring city because, “maybe it affected you too.” When I was young, she’d baby me when I had a cold but never mentioned taking me to the doctor over a mild fever. Now, if I sound remotely ill, her first instinct is to demand I immediately take a four-hour flight home. She has soup. Just come home and have some soup. Colds didn’t concern her this much until both of her parents came down with what seemed like small illnesses that, in the end, killed them.

I didn’t become afraid of flying until my mother started talking about planes like they were all doomed Zeppelins. It became, “Call me the second you land,” and not, “Have a nice flight.” I didn’t become nervous around water until a trip to Cuba three years ago when she called and told me to stay away from the ocean because, “You’ll get arrogant and then it’ll just come and get you.” Nothing, it seems, scares you into perpetual fear quite like becoming one of the oldest in your bloodline.

Perhaps I never was a brave person, but I know that I was bolstered by the fact that if something didn’t bother my mom, I didn’t need to be bothered by it either. Now, our anxieties have bubbled up at the same time, like she’s finally realized that she can’t protect me and it’s time for me to be worried for myself too.

*

While our boat smacked against the waves on our way to Freedom Island near Koh Phi Phi, the wooden plank I was sitting on rising with my body (here I realized that, should the boat flip over, me clutching its side would not actually save me), I felt like I did at 12 on the back of my mom’s Sea-Doo. She always drove it too fast for me to feel comfortable, the front of the vehicle slapping against Okanagan Lake, signs for the Ogopogo blurring in the distance. I’d grip her soft belly and she’d tell me to stop being a baby. When we’d return to land, all the other parents would ask me if I’d had fun and I’d grumble and tell them I was never speaking to my mother again. But it wasn’t real fear because I was with my mom. Nothing bad can happen to you when you’re with your mom. Right?

On the flight home, we hit turbulence and I held onto Hamhock again, because my mom wasn’t there and so here, yes, here, I could die.

Though the walls of her house seem to be curling around her, I think my mother is trying to claw her way out. I can sometimes see her push against whatever her brain is doing to keep her in the house, safe, quiet, sleepy. Sometimes she will talk herself into driving alone in less-than-ideal weather conditions. Now and then, I can get her to eat something that isn’t good for her. I once got her to drink two glasses of white wine and she got so drunk that she demanded to know “where the chicken went” and why I “ate all the chicken without asking.” There was no chicken in the house. I apologized regardless. It was just nice to see her fall asleep on the couch, sitting up, in the middle of eating a bowl of pasta.

She’s starting to laugh again when my dad becomes furious over small indignities. She’s at least considering the possibility that there’s a world outside that she put on hold when she tore little pieces of herself off, raised them, fed them, and then let them spiral out across the country without her, bound to her only by that sob caught in her throat when she calls after a day or two of silence, asking, “Are you okay? I don’t want to bother you, I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

After we landed, I phoned my mom to let her know I was fine, omitting, of course, all the rickety boat rides and rocky flights and flesh-eating bugs and likely-poisonous protein I had eaten. She let out an audible breath and told me she was glad we had a good time. I felt guilty for being gone, for making her anxious despite her own attempts to not imagine the worst. If I was that nervous having fun, I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be waiting for me to come home.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” she added before I hung up. “I’m going to Cuba next month.”

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