Excerpts > Spring 2001
The Anatomy of Worry
Jane Bernstein

I Lost My Daughter
This was at dusk, on our second day in California.  We had decided to run and roller blade on the Strand, in Manhattan Beach, where we were staying.  How innocently we set out.  We had only a few days before I would leave her in Los Angeles and fly back East alone, and we had wanted to have fun.  Neither of us were thinking about danger.  We were on the beach, in the land of fun and sun!  When it became obvious that, inexperienced as she was on her borrowed roller blades, she could skate far faster than I could run, I merely said, "If we lose each other, just go forward." 

I had meant "momentarily lose sight of." 

For a while, I could see her ahead of me, young, tan, voluptuous.  Then the flat, straight path curved away from the beach into a highly trafficked area in Hermosa Beach, the next town.  I was distracted by the congestion, trying to edge far away from cars, and when a minute or two later, I looked for her, she was gone.  The sky was beginning to darken.  Not to worry, I thought, imagining that at any moment I would see her in the distance in her skimpy Spandex top, white shorts worn low on her hips.  I would pick up speed to reach her, and when we were side by side, I would say, "Wow, I was worried for a second.  We should have made better plans." 

But she was nowhere in sight.  For a while, as I ran forward (wasn't that what I had said, "Just go forward?")  I kept seeing her in my imagination -- white top, white shorts -- kept replaying the same relieved conversation, "Wow, I was worried for a second." Though I tell her I am worried, my tone is lighthearted, because everything is fine

I began to analyze my parting words to my daughter, to reassure myself that I had not said anything ambiguous.  But racing through my head, like an indictment:  No helmet, no money, no ID, no contingency plans, pretty, seventeen years old, if not naive, then still idealistic enough to believe that people are fundamentally good.

"Wow, I was worried for a second..." Even in my imagined relief my voice quavered.

As the sky grew duskier, my struggle to push back the panic increased. It was as if above me were not stars, but dimming houselights.  Scenes began to unfold.   I could no longer see her skating toward me; could not hear myself say, in mock concern, "Wow, I was worried," but saw, despite my resolve and my silent self-instruction not to panic, a car going around the bend, the driver distracted, my daughter, my beautiful child...

The heart beat increases, breathing comes more rapidly. 

I could not live without her, would not want to try.  Would rather kill myself, but not jumping, I couldn't jump.  Pills could leave me brain damaged, I'd never do pills.  Maybe a gun to the head, though no one I knew kept one stashed, and what would I say, like, hi, may I borrow your pistol?

Oh please, please, please...

Deep in the brain, the amygdala, regular of the fight/flight response, senses danger, and sends off alarm signals to the prefrontal cortex.

I ran forward, praying, making myself see her skating in the distance in her skimpy white garb, going through the scenario again:

"Wow, I was worried for a second!" 

She is barely concerned.  Everything is fine!

I had been running for a long time and my legs were tired.  Just go forward, I thought.  Isn't that exactly what I had said?  I could not start thinking I would never find her.  Of course I would find her.  And I would coolly say I was worried, but I would laugh, too. 

I told myself that everything would be okay, but the worry spread, like a drop of liquid on blotter paper. 

The prefrontal cortex receives alarm signals from the amygdala, and starts to analyze the worry.  Once the reverberating circuit between the two is created, it is very difficult to intercept.

Beautiful, beloved daughter, so vulnerable.  Flesh, bone, beating heart. 

I would not worry.

But now, in the midst of the unstoppable montage of images, I ran, remembering her as a baby, seven or so months old.   Sitting but not yet pulling herself up or walking.  She's on a freshly laundered mover's blanket on top of the carpet.  I am in the kitchen of our small apartment, no more than fifteen feet away.  She is at that age where she has just attained the pincer grasp --  thumb and forefinger together -- and she has begun to pluck at things with her brand-new grasp -- dust balls, lint. 

I am grating cheese.  I look at her, at the mound of cheese, at her. What happens next takes only an instant -- I look up and barely see the sliver of glass clutched in that neat, new pincer grasp, her mouth opening wide. 

What do you mean, you looked away? 

There's no room for mistakes! 

Ambulances, furious voices, full of righteous anger. 

A man comes out of the shadows, grabs my daughter before she can resist, knocks her to the ground.  She isn't even wearing a helmet.

Beautiful, seventeen, no money or ID.

You, of all people, let her go roller blading without a helmet? 

Please, I thought.  I'll do anything if she'll just be okay.  But I knew that if -- when  -- we met up, my worry would just begin.

I was leaving her in LA, flying home alone.

At seventeen?  What kind of mother are you?

A worrier. 

You're a worrier and you're letting your daughter live in LA alone?  How is this possible?


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