May 20, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Tranquil terror

By |2024-04-30T04:34:49+02:00April 9th, 2024|Area 51|
The Sick Girl by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov.

As I lie in bed humbled by the disease that will soon blind me, I am reminded of a woman I dated briefly more than a decade ago. She was an American archaeologist from a small town in Missouri, in Rome to participate in a dig just outside the city. The problem was that she suffered from any number of autoimmune disorders that left her sidelined for weeks at a time, a good number of those weeks spent prostrate in my bed.

I tried often to rouse her, tempting her with tasty breakfasts or offering her a chair in the sun overlooking the springtime city from my balcony. Few of these temptations ever worked.

Her bones hurt “from floor to ceiling,” as she put it, and my efforts, while kind, couldn’t relieve her from her afflictions or take her mind off them.

The last I heard from her, she promised to again be in touch when she felt better and her “tranquil terror” had passed.

Soon enough, I came to feel sorry for her, a sentiment marred by what seemed a kind of self-indulgence. She had good work, a good life, came from affluent circumstances, and had faced few sour moments in her three decades of life.

“Rouse yourself,” I felt like saying.

Bed for days at a time is no good residence for a vibrant young woman.

But I said none of these things, and, eventually, despite all that Italy offered, she returned to indolent small-town life, giving her maladies wide berth. The last I heard from her, she promised to again be in touch when she felt better and her “tranquil terror” had passed. I never heard from her again, though I wrote at least a dozen messages.

For several years after our abortive dalliance, I thought of her and shook my head, all the more so when friends told of people they knew, children included, stricken by sicknesses no one quite understood but that were nonetheless paralyzing. Still, I struggled to understand these many variations on tranquil terror.

That struggle to understand has now passed as I spend my own days in bed, immobilized not only by my inability to see but by the existential awareness that there can and will be no relief from my predicament.

Now I find my own friends examining my situation skeptically and recommending dictation programs, Braille, audiobooks, and so on. They are of course realistically right to do so.

But what they fail to understand, and what I cannot teach them, is that tranquil terror eats away at the moorings of an individual’s will to live, thus depriving him or her of the context necessary to rise from bed, since rising begs a purpose, a cause, a meaning.

My Missouri friend went for days eating like a sparrow, and nothing I did could change that.

Now I eat like that same sparrow, uninterested in nourishment because it seems to serve no rousing ends.

I prefer my tranquility, and I am owned by my terror. I am not depressed so much as separate from the accepted terms of life and living. I try to tell this to those who care about me. I say in Italian and English, “This is not a life,” but they talk me from my ledge, or try to, with comments about my indomitable spirit.

I prefer my tranquility, and I am owned by my terror. I am not depressed so much as separate from the accepted terms of life and living.

I do not hear them.

Better said, I do not choose to.

I have made my own autoimmune world, though mine has no pain aside from the existential burdens incipient blindness brings to bear. I now comprehend all too well why the suicide rate for men over 65 stricken by blindness is so very high. Depriving the experienced of what they have all their life known is terrifying, and many want simply to close their eyes and leave life’s now-darkening precincts.

Why do I write this? Not for self-indulgent reasons. That’s not and never has been my style.

Instead, I write this for my Missouri friend, my one-time lady in a bed she was reluctant to leave, and perhaps never did.

Her tranquil terror is now mine.

The window overlooking my stunning view, with blinds I hauled up to make her see, now remain down, untouched, my bedroom in darkness.

If only she were still in that bed with the “new” me as a companion. I could turn to her and say, “No need to move. None. I understand.”

And there we would be, in shy but companionable terror.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.