Last night I got a phone call about 8 o’clock on a dark, wet evening in Virginia from the “Nine-One-One Center,” an automated voice telling residents to “Lock all doors and windows, stay inside and don’t answer the door to anybody while the police are engaged in an incident at the (named) nearby park.” I live about two hundred yards from a 34-acre wooded park, normally considered an asset to our community.
I’ve lived through more threatening situations than you would credit, but often they were merely matters of potential disaster enhanced by a fertile imagination. Last night I walked around my house where I live alone, double locking all the doors, checking window latches, closing interior shutters, lowering blinds and switching lights on and off as I vacillated whether a desperado would be more likely to break into an uninhabited house, or one with lights all over. I settled for illuminating the living room, hall and two bedrooms to dissuade him.
In the wee hours I reflected on some of the anxieties suffered in a long life lived carefully. After an uneasy night I’m here to tell you a few. Judge for yourselves the extent to which I could be described as neurotic.
The most perilous incidents happened to me between the ages of two and eight, during WWII. Strangely, I didn’t feel as frightened then as I might have; as a loved child, I felt certain my parents would not let anything really bad happen to me. We lived in London south east of the city center, on the direct path of German bombers bent on destroying our capital. Ten miles from the center, some crews prematurely ejaculated their bombs and turned for home, probably because searchlights and a Big Bertha gun across the road, protected only by a barrage balloon in the next door garden, harassed them on the way. Daddy and I once stood in the dark garden, the blackout tightly shut behind us, watching the searchlight beams above, hunting their targets.
When unmanned buzz bombs and rockets were developed later in the war they often ran out of fuel in our area. We were lucky there was only one direct hit on our property, a bomb dropping 15 ft. from the house, making a crater in the lawn which my Father transformed pragmatically into a vegetable garden. We regularly saw and heard the drone of war planes overhead. We slept in the living room under a cast iron shelter designed to stop the roof crushing us. The windows were blown out by blast several times. In retrospect the criss-cross strips of sticky paper reinforcing window panes seem inadequate. Once, towards the end of the war, the sky was filled from one horizon to the other with hundreds of planes flying south. As we looked up my Father said “Look, that’s the Americans going to bomb Germany. They are so brave to go in daylight.” It felt like the cavalry had arrived.
In 1947 when I was ten, a man exposed himself to me in the quiet lane where we lived, saying “Coom ‘ere, luv,” from three yards away, in a northern accent (accents precisely place people in England). I was terrified. I ran home, pounded on the front door, and by the time my Father opened it, the man had run off. Daddy donned his coat, took me by the hand and strode purposefully in the neighborhood looking for the perpetrator. We didn’t find him. He called the police who came to interview me, which was frightening in its turn; I didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain what had happened. My protective Father said he would not let me testify in court if they should catch him because it would be traumatic for me. I suspect that’s why too many predators get away with it, but at the time I was relieved.
In 1964 undoubtedly the bravest thing I’ve done in my entire life was to intentionally conceive my second baby. The first birth had been so traumatic, it felt like jumping off a cliff before hang-gliders were invented to risk that experience again. It was a measure of my love of children and raw courage, knowing what might happen nine months later. It was the biggest relief of my life that it was lovelier the second time around.
In the early eighties when we were living in Wales by the sea, the phone rang late one night. The police told me that my second son had been injured as a passenger in a rolling car accident. Although they hastily assured me that he was alive and in hospital for a check-up, my heart leapt painfully and my brain went into a spin. I drove shaking to the hospital. There I found he had a broken finger, bruised ribs and possible concussion so they kept him in that night, but mercifully he came home whole the next day. Two of his friends died in separate car accidents about that time. It’s a common teenage hazard.
Every parent of growing children has experienced many of the anxieties that plagued me, raising five sons. Once, sons two and three went parachuting without telling me, exaggerating the 17 year old’s age as his grandfather had done to join the military in 1915. They showed me a video of their descent, tiny dots in the sky falling from the ‘plane, landing with their escorts, walking grinning past the camera, mouthing “Sorry, Mum.” I can’t blame them; I’m grateful I didn’t know about it. Sometimes I still protest that they don’t tell me things that might worry me, but I can understand why. It isn’t easy for young men having an anxious Mom. They deserve a more robust, nonchalant mother.
They canoed in the sea in a swell, teetered across a weir for a dare, leaped over walls on roller skates, came home late after too many beers, slept under hedges and generally disturbed my sleep for several years. It goes with the territory. They were responsible youths in the main but boys will be boys. Today they are all past forty and good citizens, but I continue to worry about issues that dog a family forever. Let me warn young parents, you are a hostage to fortune: once you have children they never reach a stage where you don’t worry. They just have more grown up issues and your grandchildren are repeating the pattern. It’s the price you pay for loving them.
In London in the nineties my husband and I were awoken by knocking on our ground floor bedroom window: three loud, purposeful raps. At the same time the garden security light came on. I went to the window (it was 6 o’clock on a dark winter morning) and noticed that our kitchen light was on, telling us that somebody had already got into our apartment. My husband routinely locked the bedroom door, as burglary in London is more common than in America, partly because even if you have a rare licensed gun, it is prohibited to shoot an intruder: you can go to prison for that. I don’t want to give the Gun Lobby ammunition but that’s how it is in England where burglars and even the police are not routinely armed. It’s safer than guns.
My husband told me to leave the bedroom door locked and wait. I knelt by the door, looking through the keyhole to the hall. To my horror the front door of the apartment opened inwardly as I watched. The three seconds it took to see who entered seemed like thirty as my heart raced. Recently two men had held up a couple at knife point in our neighborhood, saying “Scream and I’ll kill you,” but when one of them went towards her teenage daughter’s bedroom the mother screamed in terror, and fortunately the men left. On this occasion I was partly reassured to recognize our cleaning lady. I say “partly” because at the time she was sectioned in a mental hospital, at intervals subject to mental illness, possibly schizophrenic.
Brenda knocked at our bedroom door pleading, “Eileen, please let me in, the police are after me. I escaped from the hospital. They were trying to kill me.” My husband called out cautiously, “Are you alone?” and when she answered “Yes,” we opened the bedroom door and she fell into the room. She babbled without pause for an hour about the attempts of nursing staff at the hospital to kill her, apparently paranoid. She had thumbed a lift from a passing car and taken over one of our letting apartments in the house with a plan to stay there for a week or two, counting on us to hide her.
I listened to her at length, gave her breakfast, then we persuaded her gently that her only option, since she was sectioned, was to return to the hospital. My husband offered to call the hospital with her permission, to tell them not to worry about her, that he would bring her back later that morning and that she was sorry she had run away. Eventually she agreed and he drove her back, supporting her with the hospital authorities.
He changed the locks that day because Brenda still had keys to our house and apartment through her work as our cleaner for several years. For days afterwards I felt our safety had been violated. This incident made me acutely aware of the unsettling experience of intruders in one’s home. In our street three houses were burgled (in a good residential area) within a matter of months and I was not sorry when the time came to leave London.
Last night I emailed the son who lives in Australia (who parachuted at 17) about the police message I’d just received. From my iPad with the bedroom door locked and blinds lowered, I typed the subject heading: “Now you can worry about me for a change.” I wrote that if I was taken hostage I might die in a hail of police bullets. He responded that I should get a gun, not a large one as the recoil would damage my shoulder, but “a small shotgun would be manageable, and aim at the intruder’s legs.” As a lawyer he knows the consequences, but he must have forgotten that I’m a Quaker. Quakers are peace-loving, but I’m deeply flawed and a hypocrite as I’ve always reserved the right to strangle with my bare hands anyone who threatened my family. Think Mother Tiger. But I’m still not getting a gun. In any case I’m so feeble that an unarmed intruder would easily borrow mine.
After an hour last night the police sent another automatic telephone message to inform locals that the incident in the park was now resolved, and we should resume our normal activities. I’d shared the police warning with a friend last night, who responded he had no doubt the call was a prank by youngsters. I phoned the local sheriff’s office this morning to check. It was genuine, but I haven’t learned the details. I’m impressed by the police’s vigilance and their concern to keep the community informed.
This morning I raised the blinds and unlocked the doors. Reviewing my life in the cold light of breakfast, I recognized that many of my lifelong fears have been grounded in apprehension, nurtured by an anxious nature. My family would smile and nod, but I’m just saying… sometimes…