My mother is claustrophobic. Whenever she enters a small space, like an elevator, she becomes short of breath and can’t wait to get out. When I was younger, I thought, with the typical cruelty of children, that it was funny, and that she was exaggerating. Once we went as a family for a hike on the Bruce Trail in Ontario, and we came to this cave with an entrance and exit, called Fat Man’s Misery. My father and I had come once before, but it was my mother’s and sister’s first time.
First you climb down a ladder into a cavernous vault, and then go up some stairs, past a dummy of a miner, into an extremely narrow passage near the exit. I don’t remember if my father and I knew that this would be hell for my mother, but we didn’t tell her what was in store. If I remember correctly, turning around would have meant that we would not be able to meet up afterwards, and she forced herself to go through it.
Knowing me, I probably thought the whole thing was funny. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time.
Over the past couple of years I’ve realised that, although I’m not claustrophobic, I am able to imagine vividly what it must be like to die in an enclosed space.
Once when we went on a trip through the United States, back in 1984, we spent a horrible night trying to find a hotel, but wherever we went, there were no more rooms. Eventually we found one in the small hours of the morning. I remember trying to sleep in the back seat of the car, and a restless numbness coming over my legs. I wanted to thrash them about, kick things, even break my legs if it meant stopping the feeling. I had to get out, walk around, relieve the muscles in my legs.
A couple of years ago I had a dream that someone had locked me up in a very small safe. I woke with my heart in my throat. Since then, the thought of being stuck in a building that has collapsed in an earthquake (more likely here in Athens than it ever was in Toronto), what was once the ceiling now pressing down on my chest, or the thought of being buried alive, lying there with nothing to do but wait till death eventually comes, will insinuate itself into my head and refuse to go away. It becomes an obsession. I jolt upright in bed, shake my head to free it of such thoughts, but when I lie down again, I’m thinking about it again. The more the thought terrifies me and sends me into a cold sweat, the more I think about it.
The worst part of it, as I imagine it, is being enclosed in a space not so small that you can’t still move. I imagine my limbs becoming numb and fidgety, as they did that night in the car, but I’m in a narrow space, under six feet of earth. I can only slightly bend my knees before they hit the unyielding wood above me. I lie in bed and imagine all this. I’m lying on my back. I can’t turn over, because a quarter of the way, my shoulder hits the wood as well. All I can do is thrash about and go mad till I run out of oxygen.
Who, or what, put these thoughts into my head? Will they go away again, as suddenly as they came?