I come from a long line of pessimists, or as they would say, realists. Perhaps that’s why my father’s ancestors took –- or were given –- the family name of ‘Leblang,’ which means ‘long life’ in German. Unfortunately, the name has been a karmic joke in recent generations, as my grandfather Papa Ed died of brain cancer at 62, and my father passed away of a (second) heart attack at 61.
Still, the Leblangs were a cheery bunch compared to some on my mother’s side of the family, who bore a long history of depression, anxiety, and instability. My grandmother, Nanny Fay, lived with undiagnosed depression, suffered “nervous breakdowns,” and was often immobilized when my Mom was growing up. My mother carried her own anxiety and depression, along with resentment at her absent mother, with unpredictable mood swings throughout my childhood, and into the years beyond.
I absorbed my family’s ‘glass half empty’ mentality as a boy; a series of accidents and traumas brought home the message that life was dangerous, and that no one got out alive. On my first day of kindergarten, my mother was teaching me how to navigate our busy street –- one I’d have to cross daily on the half-mile walk back from school –- when I panicked, and bolted into that same street to reach our house. (My mother had devised a system where I would blow a small whistle when I reached the far side of the street, and then she would come outside and help me cross over. We were “practicing” when I saw Mom close the front door and disappear into our house. Instead of blowing my whistle, I bolted toward home, colliding with a car, shattering my hip, and sustaining a concussion.
I woke up sometime later at Suburban Hospital, where I’d spend six weeks in a crib-like bed, my left leg suspended at a 45 degree angle, and then several more weeks back home, my leg encased in a cast. Finally, just after Halloween, I hobbled back into my classroom. I was reminded that I was “lucky to be alive,” but instead of feeling lucky I felt terror, afraid of the walk to and from school, and shamed for my tears, for my show of emotion. Over the next ten years, several more accidents and medical events followed; each time life seemed more tenuous, fragile.
Those medical moments happened to my family, too. When I was 14, my father, who seemed indestructible at 6’2”, with his blocky shoulders and powerful body, had a massive heart attack while playing tennis. In the emergency room, I heard a doctor tell my mother, “We don’t know if he’s going to make it.” My Dad did recover, though it took the better part of a year. I watched as my uptight engineer father went from being a conservative nerd with his pocket-protector and rectangular black glasses to a pseudo-hip middle-aged man with wire-rims, long sideburns, and groovy bell-bottom pants. It took me a while to realize that my father, who had no belief in God and was sure that “this is all there is,” was afraid of dying young, of running out of time, of missing something –- a fear that turned out to be well-founded.
Next week, I’ll be facing another birthday. In my 50s, they seem to come faster and faster, like an amusement park ride called the Rotor, which I rode as a teenager. Standing in a circle, leaning against the wall of the ride, we proceeded to tilt and spin, tilt and spin until the floor gave way beneath our feet. We remained in place, pinned by gravitational forces that I only vaguely understood, but which kept us from falling into the void below.
Today I’m almost the same age my father was when he lost his race against time. I’ve often wondered if my Dad’s history, his genetic makeup, and my own youthful trauma meant that my father’s fate would be my own. Still, my parents have bequeathed other legacies –- like the sense of will and determination –- which I watched as Dad came back from that devastating first heart attack, eventually returning to play tennis, work full time, to photography and travel. I’ve seen my mother bounce back, in recent years, from devastating falls, fractured bones, a ruptured appendix, and the loss of lifelong friends and still maintain a degree of independence.
Despite my various ups and downs, and the struggles of my parents and grandparents, I’m struck by the lessons they’ve taught me –- of the gift of time and its weight, more precious than gold, and of the need to keep moving, of getting up instead of giving in. Sometimes I feel pinned down by life, a life that is spinning too fast, like an amusement park ride.
Then I mark my position, take a deep breath, and try to enjoy the ride.
Judah Leblang is the author of the memoir, Finding My Place. He will be performing his one-man show (open to all): “Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages” at Arlington Street Church in Back Bay on Saturday April 20, 2013 at 7:30 PM. For tickets, go to www.judahleblang.com or call 617-466-9637.