The ‘what-ifs’ are real, but we must live without fear

APRIL 23, 2023 6:00 AM

Hanna Arendt, one of my favorite philosophers, said, “We will lose everything, including our lives.” I would add everything and everyone, and in no particular order.

In my younger days, I helped people navigate an ever-changing, and increasingly dangerous world. Teaching self-defense to that woman who had to walk through that parking garage late at night, with her keys between her fingers. On the fire department responding to an accident, a suicide, or that Christmas Eve fire that took the life of an infant, because someone put a heater too close to the crib.

Because the “what ifs” are real.

I have had way too much experience with such events. Yet through it all music has been my savior.

I still try to make a difference. One of those is the “Philosophy of Hope” musicals I produce for the Jana Marie Foundation, to raise awareness of mental health.

In last year’s show we had this one scene that I was particularly inspired by.

The musicians were on stage in a camping scene. I sat in my camp chair right on the edge of darkness. I could not see the audience from the stage. I love that feeling of isolation that only the stage provides.

The focus of this scene was on two young women, warming their hands by the fire. Stars danced slowly off the back wall, preparing everyone for the story about to be told.

The two stars of this scene were Breanna, technically my stepdaughter, although I dislike that description. I call her the daughter I never had. Next to her was Keely, her best friend. Keely was telling the story of the night she had written a letter explaining why she would be taking her own life. Until the phone rang. She saw who it was and picked up. It was Breanna, inviting her to sing in a musical. Keely quietly stated that this opportunity altered her life.

From my place in the shadows, I swelled with pride. Right there in front of the audience was living proof that we made a difference. That the love of music could help keep the “what ifs” at bay.

Looking back at Breanna, I realized I’d known her four years, since she was 20. I watched her study for exams and embark on a new career. I helped her move into her own apartment and experienced anxiety as she entered new relationships. I reached out my hand toward them to express how I was feeling. I was so proud of both of them my voice broke. Time stopped.

When I looked at Breanna, the daughter I never had, it hit me. My son Alex, died by suicide when he was 20. I never got a chance at these same four years to watch him grow into adulthood. Alex left no letter, nothing. Just silence.

The audience watched while I lost my composure. I was frozen, my hand reaching out. Now Breanna was crying and she was reaching out, for different reasons. She was saying “Bro, I’m so going to get you later for making me cry on stage.” That’s my name now, Bro.

I love this girl. I love everything about her yet, for the first time since I’ve known her, I was gripped by fear. “What if” something happened to her? “What if” I screwed this up too? Breanna is the only person I know that could get me to wear a bear costume for game night, or include me in family photos dressed in Christmas pajamas. She made me part of the family. I am grateful for her in ways I cannot begin to express.

After what seemed an eternity, I stood for the next song. I took a deep breath and was reminded once again that any change worth pursuing takes time. Dealing with grief is a process made easier when surrounded by people who care for you. We have very little control over how much time we get with those we love because the “what ifs” are real.

Hanna Arendt, the one who said we will lose everything, also added that we have to learn to love without fear. For to fear a certainty, she said, “is wasted energy, that siphons the life from your aliveness.”

This will not be me. I say without fear, “I love Breanna, the daughter … I have.”

Ken Baxter is a singer-songwriting author. He is an enthusiastic storytelling philosopher, leading a not-so-quiet life of triumph over tragedy. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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