Catharsis

Catharsis

A Story by Philip Muls
"

The unthinkable.

"

Early December 2008. I am at the Crown Plaza Wuzhou in Beijing. This massive hotel overlooks the Birds’ Nest stadium where the Summer Olympics took place just a couple of months earlier. As the director of a global engineering company I have been in the Forbidden City for a week now to try to close a deal with the Chinese government. The lack of progress has stressed me out to no end.


It is 5:20 a.m., I wake up with a severe hangover after last night’s negotiations. It is still dark outside, befitting the black mood which instantly settles over me like a cruel contraption. 


I realize the phone has woken me up, I believe it has been ringing for a while but I am not sure. The noise is thunderous. My heart palpitates, the muscles in my chest contract and I cannot breathe. A familiar anxiety takes hold, worsened by the feeling of being very far from home.


I pick up the phone and try to speak but nothing comes out. My throat is very dry. I hear my sister call out my name in an alarming voice. She sounds very nearby, for a moment I think she is here in China rather than at home in Belgium. My aorta pulsates down to my stomach. I have a metallic taste in my mouth as if I have been drinking mercury or lead last night. Maybe I have.


She tells me mother is dead. 


I lose it, I go to pieces. The voice of my sister trails off. Like in a nuclear meltdown, my stress chemicals reach boiling point. I have the very real sensation of accelerating without brakes down a slope leading into a solid and unforgiving wall. Raw panic rolls in and deepens for minutes which seem like hours. 


Until suddenly I reach escape velocity and my mind shuts down. My consciousness shifts to a lower stratum, deeper instinct takes over to preserve the self. No fight or flight, but freeze. Like an animal that will stand still so that its predator will not see them, I go into a state of stupor in order not to lose my mind. I become a detached observer, I do no longer participate. Closed for business. 


Lying still on the bed, breathing shallow, I see myself at the age of five, walking hand in hand with my mother in the freezing cold of a winter wonderland. Our feet make crispy noises on the snow. Everything around us is silent, honoring this moment. I feel enveloped in my mother’s mystery and secure in her blessing. A precocious child, I am eager to learn, and my mother readily answers all my questions. My world is centered on her, I conform to her. There is no visible cause for concern, yet I am terrified of losing her. Separation anxiety has me overwhelmed and, in fact, so has existential fear. They say that by the age of five, you very much understand the human condition. 


Well, I did. 


I emerged from the age of innocence with a hard and fast grasp of the concept of death. The terror of the realization that I was mortal literally took my breath away. First I could not believe it. Deep at heart, I did not feel at all that I would die. I had just learned about the world, full of symbolic meaning, and my place in it. I was a unique creature with cosmic significance. I had a contribution to make. I was good at being me and getting better every day. Surely it would be a cruel joke for me to have to die. This tragic destiny would befall lesser souls, but surely not me?


My mother had me at forty-two, an unplanned pregnancy after a very dark episode when my parents lost a son with the same name. Even today I still cannot believe that simple fact. My parents gave me the same name. No pressure.


As a replacement child - planned or not - I carried the burden of my parent’s unresolved sorrow. I had difficulty finding my real self, as my primary function presented itself to be the container for the soul of my dead brother.


Very early on, it was imprinted on me that I was an unexpected gift of life, their last-born, precious and treasured. The underlying sense being that I was the improbable miracle offspring. Whether they were ever spoken out loud or not, I remember the words “What are the odds of conceiving at that age and having a healthy and gifted baby son? We need to protect this one with our life.” 


I later realized that this maternal over shielding prevented me from accessing my own powers, of finding my center. I started in life by walking on air, not on solid ground. A charmed beginning for sure because I escaped from the dangers of my mother’s midlife pregnancy. It seemed to me I had used up all my luck just getting born, and going forward, the odds were severely against me. Whatever happened next, I should not get separated from my mother.


The very same mother that is dead now.


I am a grown man in a Beijing hotel room but I feel like I am that five-year-old boy again, walking at the hand of his mother, holding on to her for dear life. For dear life…, the irony of that is not lost on me.


The fact that she is gone hurts like nothing has hurt before. I am now forced to think the unthinkable, to speak the unspeakable. That what I have feared my whole life has now happened. This means that I too can and will die, the end of a myth that only I believed in still.


I am alone while the sun comes up over another day in Beijing. I weep. I will also weep on the flight back home tomorrow. And I will bury my mother. And I will talk to my father and my siblings, really talk, and I will feel better. Because we are alive. 


I can still love my mother even now she’s gone. That I was given the same name as my dead brother I now consider a gift of devotion, highly unsettling as it has been on my journey to this day.


I feel like a lifelong spell has been lifted. I am still here even though my mother is not. Through all the pain, I feel restoration and new possibilities. The purgation of childish emotions has cleansed the path forward.


I am my own man now.



© 2016 Philip Muls



Author's Note

Philip Muls
A new version v3 has been uploaded based upon your feedback, many thanks to all of you.

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As I read "Catharsis," I felt a numb attachment to your experience. Our parents leave their thumbprints on our very soul; and whether they are here or not, they impact our lives and who we are forever. I have no parents. I have no grandparents. Relatives on either side are completely unknown to me. Death has brushed his wings against those who should have loved me the most. Sadly, they were lost souls who, being shattered themselves, could do nothing other than shatter me as well. I am fragments of them all. My soul has been cut by their sharp edges, but I am strengthened steel - forged in the fires of loss and heartache.

That you had such an affinity for your mother at an early age, fearing her loss, tells me that you not only walked hand-in-hand with her. You walked heart-to-heart. It's only natural that her journey away from you would impact you so deeply. It also strengthened you, allowing you to realize that you could stand on your own. It's a beautiful reflection of your relationship with your mother, a reflection that so many would love to have with their own mothers, myself included.

I learned to stand and survive on my own at a very early age, far too soon for anyone to endure. Yet, we are stronger than we even know; and it's moments like this that cause our spirits to rise to the occasion.

Your parents must have loved each of their children deeply. To have lost one son and then have another to whom they bestowed the same name is deeply unsettling. On the one hand, it seems an incredible burden to the child. On the other, it seems a gift of sheer devotion. They never let go.

My own mother had a best friend who died while trying to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger. I always found it unthinkable that I was named after someone like that. It always seemed like a curse or a jinx upon my life. While I wouldn't choose to do the same, if I try to look at it from the other side, I see it as a way to keep that person's memory alive. While my mother may have had many beautiful memories of her friend, my only knowledge of her was death at her own hands while trying to end the life of another. What it means to me must have meant something completely different to her.

Your story is believable, whether real or not, so I can only speak of it as if it were. When I write, I always want the reader to feel what I'm feeling at the time that I write. If fiction, you did a splendid job of evoking emotions as if it were real. The agony of loss, the pain of separation, and the numbness of the moment are all very tangible to the reader. The flood of memory in that moment is sensate. I feel your pain.

In the end, "Catharsis" speaks of your journey and your strength and your growth towards a future bereft of fear. I have very personal reasons to relate to this story. Nonetheless, I think everyone can.

Thank you for sharing.

Here are a few corrections that need to be made ...

" ... Forbidden City for a week now to try (to) close a deal with the ..."

" ... the muscles in my chest contract and I cannot breath(e)."

"Raw panic rolls in and deepens for minutes which seem (like) hours, ..."

" ...I do (remove) no longer participate."

" ... shielding prevented me of (replace with the word 'from') accessing my own powers, of finding my center.."

There are also a number of punctuation errors that need to be corrected throughout.

Posted 2 Years Ago


2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

2 Years Ago

Thank you Linda for your detailed and professional feedback. You made me understand that I am privil.. read more



Reviews

This is a story of very raw and very real emotion. It reads as though you're writing from your own experience, which leaves me to comment on the content only by saying how brave you are to share this with the world.

As far as the writing itself, I see that this is version 3. I'm glad you've taken the time to edit something so worthwhile, but I do have a few remaining suggestions.

First, I'm not clear why you’re so full of anxiety before you answer the phone. Is it a premonition? Were you waiting for the phone call? My only concern is that when the reason behind this particular moment of emotion is unclear, it undercuts the stronger emotion of after the call is answered.

Second, I would encourage you to revisit the organization of thoughts from the "My mother had me at forty-two..." paragraph to the "I later realized" paragraph. The chronology of the growth of your thoughts and realizations becomes a little unclear and muddled. A more careful trajectory might be more effective.

The image of you walking through the snow with your mother is absolutely beautiful and holds the whole piece together. Thank you for sharing this!

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

A precocious child. I knew you were gifted. Can tell by your writing. A very meaningful account of your childhood emotions and experience.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Great story. I would only suggest in stories to avoid passive past tense when possible (phone woke me up as opposed to had woken, etc.) and to say breathing shallowly or my breathing shallow would read beter.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you for review and feedback. Kind regards Philip
I really liked the story. I very much appreciate your clear and direct way of writing. Lately I've been thinking about the topic (mortality, I guess - and I also guess I'm not the first one who has been thinking about that topic :) ) a lot and in your story there are many thoughts I share. Once again I'll use the opportunity to support Mr. Stephen King who wrote "Joyland". Great novel and some passages in your story reminded me of it.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you Bobby. I love Stephen King but am not familiar with that title. I will look it up.
I remembered trading this before but just took a quick scroll down the page to check if I'd commented thinking "why the beck did you not review this?" After reading, I read the author's note and smiled, yes I've commented before on this piece.
Perhaps now with both parents gone, I have a different view on this. My father died at the age of five and so it marked me with the same fear of my mother dying. Paralyzing separation anxiety if she was gone anywhere too long, or I did not know where she was. I always thought her death would break me in much the way you describe, but I was able to say those goodbyes in person, and I felt the release.
I had no years at her funeral, or very few, and while that sounds odd, I think, in a way, I'd grieved her death most of my life.
I can't pinpoint your exact changes, but this is going to my library.
Jan

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Hi Jan, your words 'I'd grieved her death most of my life' resonate. Since my mother lived to be 84 .. read more
Having lost my mother, I can somewhat relate to your feelings ... You have portrayed emotions and thoughts that all of us have in the very fact that we wish to presume that we, somehow some damn way, are different than others, and, hence, we, surely not us, shall not die, while others drop like flies around us ... My own step dad told me on his death bed that he did not know how to deal with things, because it had always been somebody else ... The pace of this piece of your work in progress kept the reader moving right along towards whatever your intended path may be ... pace is very important in holding a reader's attention ... This was true in the past, even a hundred years ago, and it is even more important in this day and age called Brevity, where stories, complete f-ing stories are less than a 1000 words ... I am a wordy writer, but I also recognize the importance of pace to stitch all those words together and make them flow like river rapids towards a riveting culminating ending climax ... Having read two of your chapter portions, thus far, I am beginning to feel the pangs of coming addiction, losing control of my resolve to not read that next chapter portion until you may ask ... I may just have to step out on my own and go fetch myself that fast paced high from another one of you well written and interesting chapter portions to your book in progress ... Me thinks you have created a reader-monster ... LOL! ... Truly, I enjoyed what I have read ... Your style is entertainingly, pleasantly, addictive ...

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you Marvin. Indeed, I will bundle all the stories in a book somehow, not very clear in which f.. read more
Had a chance to read a few of your stories, and my overarching thought was that each was well-crafted. In particular, I found Catharsis visceral and emotional without crossing the line to sentimentality. Nice piece, crisp and clean, without overreaching, despite the heartbreaking subject matter. Fine job.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Im very toutched with your piece. My father died when I was 14, and from time to time I like to review is memories, other times im left with a bitter taste.
I dont know if this is your own personal story or just a tale but I think you did very well in exposing by words what we feel when we face death, and the sudden realisation tht one day we will die too.
I particularly enjoyed this part : " Lying still on the bed, breathing shallow, I see myself at the age of five, walking hand in hand with my mother in the freezing cold of a winter wonderland. Our feet make crispy noises on the snow. Everything around us is silent, honoring this moment. I feel enveloped in my mother’s mystery and secure in her blessing. A precocious child, I am eager to learn, and my mother readily answers all my questions. My world is centered on her, I conform to her. There is no visible cause for concern, yet I am terrified of losing her. Separation anxiety has me overwhelmed and, in fact, so has existential fear. They say that by the age of five, you very much understand the human condition." this was so well written. I take my hat to you..There is nothing for me that needs to be added.. nothing that needs to be corrected in your work..
I Loved it....
Thank you so much for what you made me feel.

Posted 2 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Yes it is my personal story, I do not think I would be able to write it without the actual experienc.. read more
Hello Philip,

Yet another well-written piece of writing of yours that I was lucky to read. I do not find many points for improvement, but will try to offer you some just the same. Do with these whatever you please, as they are merely based upon my humble opinion.

1) Something does not sound right when I read these two sentences after each other.

"It is five a.m., I wake up with a severe.."

"I realize the phone has woken me up, it has been ringing for a while."

It might have something to do with the tense and POV. Would you know if a phone had been ringing for a long time before you wake up?

2) In the next chunk of text, I instantly wondered, could a man put to words all these thoughts in his mind while this is happening. In other word is it realistic to realize all this? Especially since it regards a 'shutting down of the mind' here. If it were about the realization that the character was in love with someone, I could imagine that words, synonyms and expression would come to mind as abundant. But not in this case.

Like a nuclear meltdown, my stress chemicals reach boiling point. I have the very real sensation of accelerating without brakes down a path leading into a brick wall. Raw panic rolls in and deepens for minutes which seem like hours, until suddenly I reach escape velocity. My mind shuts down. My consciousness shifts to a lower stratum, deeper instinct takes over to preserve the self. No fight or flight, but freeze. Like an animal that will stand still so that its predator will not see them, I go into a state of stupor in order not to lose my mind."

Hope it helps!

Regards,

Sesame

@followsesame
www.themagiccave.com


Posted 2 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

2 Years Ago

Thank you for the very relevant feedback Sesame.
Sesame

2 Years Ago

You're welcome Grimberger!
I want to say a bunch of words.... But Linda has that covered.
And really all I can think of is:
Amazing. Outstanding. Pure genius.

Posted 2 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

2 Years Ago

Thank you for the nice feedback!
SoberBunny

2 Years Ago

Of course :)

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Added on October 10, 2015
Last Updated on February 15, 2016
Tags: catharsis, cleansing, mother, meltdown, mortality, loss

Author

Philip Muls
Philip Muls

Grimbergen, Belgium



About
Living in Europe, but travelling frequently in US and Asia. I love to combine what I experience during travel with observations and thoughts about the human condition. more..

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