Suffocating used to scare me when I was a child. My first and only actual panic attack occurred when I was five and my little brother choked on a cucumber. He coughed for a few seconds and then spit it out. Ironically, I was the one that couldn’t breathe or swallow because I thought baby Andy was going to be killed by a ruthless vegetable.
I also thought suffocating was something anyone could do on a whim. Not with rope or water, but by choosing not to breathe for awhile. I just figured if somebody wanted to commit suicide, they could hold their breath and they would suddenly die once the air had completely left their lungs. I was so convinced that this was true, I monitored my breathing every day for what seemed like a year. I was somehow able to turn an autonomic bodily function into something I had full control over, which I know now is almost the equivalent of me stopping my digestive system or preventing my pupils from dilating. At the time, however, this was a totally rational fear which lead to many nights lying in bed, breathing like I just climbed a stairway to heaven and hoping this journey wouldn’t become a reality if I stopped manually taking in each gulp of air.
I stopped paying attention to my breathing once I realized it was pointless. Like when I accidentally wore sweatpants to gym in middle school, I came to the conclusion that my body was going to do whatever the hell it wanted to, whether I liked it or not.
If only everything became less scary when we aged. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
I was in elementary school when my friends and I used to chase leaf twisters on the soccer field at recess. This was brought on by seeing the movie Twister in 1996 and deciding that I wanted to devote my life to being a storm chaser like Helen Hunt. Leaf twisters were a safe place to start because they were slow-moving, small in scale, and made up entirely of crumpled, dead plant pieces that toddlers jump in for fun.
Most kids used recess as a chance to play soccer and climb on the monkey bars. The children who made the mistake of being my friends were forced, by me, to stand against the building and wait for strong gusts of wind.
“Can’t we wait on the swings?” They would ask. “This is so boring!”
“Are you insane?” I would yell. “You’re really going to let you’re guard down on a day like today? What would you do if the playground got hit by an L5 and you didn’t even see it coming?”
We used the “L System” to measure the strength of a leaf twister. L5 creatively and nonsensically stood for Leaf 5 which was the strongest on the scale and carried anywhere from five hundred to five hundred and fifty leaves in its funnel. There was never enough time to count, but as nine-year-olds we had very good instincts.
When a leaf twister would finally appear (and this usually occurred once every seventeen school days) my friends and I would physically chase it. We had no equipment to monitor the wind gusts. We had no trucks or vans. We just ran after the twister until it disappeared, which was usually within ten seconds after it formed.
I was only lucky enough to catch a leaf twister one time. It was such a pivotal moment in my childhood that I still remember it vividly today. The twister formed within several yards of where I was standing. It was an L3 at least. I was alone. By this point in my storm chasing career, my friends had all ditched me to throw rocks at the classroom fat kid. Not knowing what to do when I actually caught a leaf twister, I ran towards it at full speed and jumped inside. It was like nothing I had ever seen before in my short life. Leaves floating around me like planets around the sun. A spiral of red, orange, yellow, and brown on a crisp afternoon. The sensation of being a part of a natural phenomenon so incredible that you think it’s magic.
The magic didn’t last long. That specific moment was short-lived (the twister imploded after a weak four seconds), but so was childhood wonder in general. Especially after I grew up and learned more and more about real tornadoes. The ones that flatten houses and leave entire towns demolished in their wake. I may have discovered the beauty of being able to breathe without thinking about it, but much of the world became darker with age. Cap guns became real guns, fireworks became missiles, waves became tsunamis, and Lindsay Lohan became Lindsay Lohan. It’s only natural that the harsh realities of life take over as time passes.
A few nights ago, we had severe weather in the area that kept me confined to my living room, glued to the computer screen. Between the computer, my television, my phone, and my tablet; my weather tracker was enough to make most meteorologists sad or fearful for my well-being. But the storms had to be tracked. They had to be monitored. I had to watch for them. If one ever formed near my town, I would need to know and seek shelter immediately. And it’s in that shelter that I will wait in fear for everything to blow over, counting my breaths, and longing for the days when a tornado was something to run towards at full speed.