I cannot think of my childhood without confronting my fear of death.
One of my earliest memories is of me at four, lying in the dark, my heart hammering and stomach cramping, in panic over the idea that a person would be dead far longer than they would ever be alive; that time existed before me and would continue without me. It was a large thought for a child—too large. I remember wanting to run. I did get up and run to the bathroom, where I screamed for my mother. When she came in, I told her my stomach hurt. I didn’t have the words to explain what was actually wrong at the time, but her touch calmed me enough to help me return to bed.
Looking back, it’s natural that my obsession with death began at such a tender age. I am the product of an unhappy arranged marriage. My mother met my father once before she reluctantly married him. It was a business transaction between her parents and his. He needed a wife, and my mother was a proper girl who was not allowed to date or speak to men. She was twenty-three, and it was time to be married. She arrived in Canada with a suitcase and wed my father in a burgundy dress she’d brought from Trinidad. No one she knew attended the civil ceremony.
A few months into my parents’ marriage, my father’s mother, who lived with them, was diagnosed with leukemia. The disease was advanced, and my mother spent most of her days witnessing the decline of a woman she barely knew. They talked, of course. My grandmother told my mother about the death of her own husband. He’d been an illiterate alcoholic who beat her and passed when my father was only twelve. Afterward, she’d supported her children alone by growing and selling vegetables in the market and taking on cleaning work. Tragedy returned shortly afterward, when her oldest son passed. He’d slipped while working on a roof and was electrocuted when he’d clung to a hydro line. She kept a black-and-white picture of him, which we still had when I was older. My uncle had been a serious-looking young man with a hard stare. I remember thinking he looked my father. I wondered if my grandmother saw my uncle’s face when she looked at my father.
It was in this atmosphere of death that I was conceived. My mother watched my grandmother gasp her last breath while welcoming the flutter of my limbs. After my father buried his mother, my mother begged him to let her return to Trinidad to give birth to me. She’d known only grief and isolation in Canada. My father, not particularly attached to her or the idea of me, let her go.
I spent the first few years of my life in Trinidad. I was a happy, well-fed baby, according to my relatives. I smiled easily and laughed often in pictures. I am told I was well loved by mother’s family. I recall very little of that time. When I see those images of my young self, I don’t connect with the joy on that child’s face. It is as if that little girl is the ghost of another woman; a woman who didn’t grow up.
There are no pictures of me smiling as a child in Canada. Officially we belonged with my father in Toronto, and with my mother having no way to support us monetarily in Trinidad, we had to leave. The move was devastating for her. I became shy and withdrawn. We lived in the same tiny apartment where my grandmother had spent her last days. My mother had no friends in Canada and was completely cut off from her family. The cycle of violence my grandmother experienced at the hands of her husband continued through my father, befalling my mother.
I didn’t eat well and was chronically underweight. Anxiety over my parents’ violent fights or getting evicted from our subsidized apartment kept me awake at night. My mother constantly panicked over our lack of stability and my health. She was terrified of losing me, the only person she had in this country. Her fear was all-consuming. She once told me that she was afraid I’d get leukemia like my grandmother. This haunted me. I worried that I’d die like my grandmother with no one ever truly loving me.
At school, kids asked about the dark circles under my eyes and why I was so pale. Why were they able to see the veins in my face? I had no answers. It was difficult for me to make friends, and by grade four I’d become known as the school weirdo.
Needless to say, there was no one like me on television or in books. Aside from there being no brown girls in the media, girls were supposed to be cute, upbeat, and cherub-cheeked. They dreamed of weddings, balls, love, and even being astronauts. My preoccupation with death had robbed me of this type of escapism. I didn’t daydream because I could not picture a future with me alive in it. I had no vocabulary to describe a person like me. “Weirdo” seemed to be the label people chose for me, so it was how I described myself.
I began to gravitate toward books and shows with characters who embraced darkness. I understood them; felt they were the only “people” I’d ever encounter who were like me. I loved Batman’s rogues’ gallery and the campy gothic settings of Scooby-Doo. I watched true crime programs I was much too young to view with my mother.
I couldn’t talk about my dark thoughts without being told I was negative by my peers or by father’s extended family. My mother tried her best to be there for me, but she had begun to work two jobs around the time I was ten and was in the process of saving money to leave my father. There were few outlets to process my emotions, until I was almost a teen and watched The Addams Family movie.
Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams created the space culturally for me to exist. Here was a seven-year-old girl, pale, sullen, and obsessed with death, the antithesis of the iconic Shirley Temple or Full House’s Michelle Tanner, and audiences loved her. Wednesday had spent her childhood playing wake-the-dead in her family cemetery, while I’d spent mine having the dead keep me awake in government housing.
None of the Addamses required Wednesday to smile, be positive, or to stop asking questions about death and darkness. She was free to revel in the macabre without limitation. The entire Addams clan was conceived as a satirical portrayal of the American family. Of course, Wednesday is an extreme caricature and not an example of any form of acceptable behavior. For the record, I do not condone attempting to murder one’s brother ever, much less repeatedly.
But her existence provided me with a frame of reference I’d never had. I could tell people I liked Wednesday and it became a shorthand in my teenage years for the kind of music I liked, books I read, and my penchant for wearing black. Wednesday helped other people connect to me. They could accept her as she was, and that made accepting me easier. I still didn’t think I’d live to adulthood, but Wednesday, her mother, Morticia, and her grandmother were a guide for who I could be in the future, if I miraculously lived passed eighteen.
Wednesday gave me permission to process and cope with my fear of death and isolation by exploring it. It is no coincidence that I write Gothic horror, that I love existentialist philosophy, and that the song of my heart is “Only Happy When It Rains” by a band called Garbage. Grappling with death through art was healthier than keeping my anxiety bottled up during the day and being terrified of the dark and unable to sleep at night.
So much of what I create is tangled with the darkness that tinged my childhood. I have not outgrown my dizzying fear of death and most likely never will. At the end of The Addams Family, Wednesday, Pugsley, and Uncle Fester venture out to play wake-the-dead in the family cemetery, knocking on the graves of their ancestors and digging them up. Recently my mother looked at me during a video call and said, “You look like your father’s mother.” My face, it seems, had exhumed the long-buried memory of my grandmother for her.
That night, I lay awake and thought about death just I’d done when I was four, but I did not panic and run. This time I sat with the discomfort of looking death in the face, just as Wednesday would have done, and embraced it.
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming at Unfettered Hexes, The Dark, Weird Horror, Pseudopod, Fireside Quarterly, PodCastle and others. She serves as the Ignyte Award Finalist Liaison for FIYAHCON and is also the wandering ghost of a Shimmer Badger. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time wandering her local woods. She tweets @sillysyntax. Her bibliography can be found at suzanpalumbo.wordpress.com.