Over the past decade, I have endured frequent panic attacks caused by my overwhelming fear of my own mortality. In my admittedly uneducated opinion, these attacks and this phobia of mine stem from the near-simultaneous hospitalization of my two surviving grandparents in the early 1990s—my first legitimate encounters with death and disease, having been too young to remember the passing of my other grandparents. During recent years, with the help of therapy, I have learned coping techniques which largely enable me to confront and stop these panic attacks before they get out of hand. There was a time when just typing an entry like this would set me off. So, I’ve gotten much better.

But there are moments, particularly when I’m tired and my defenses are down, when I can’t stop them. I had one of those moments while driving home on Monday night.

The attack was quite brief, but quite profound. As my twenty-eighth birthday approaches, and as I am faced with the wonderful and terrifying prospect of fatherhood, I feel more fragile and mortal than ever. The attack I had on Monday evening was the result of a random recollection of a photograph of Dad and me from when I was very little. In the photo, Dad and I are sitting on the couch, an old brownish/greenish thing that we had for years. Dad is young, probably even younger than I am now. His hair is long, though not the longest it ever was, and his eyes are cast forward, probably on the TV.

Me, I’m sitting next to Dad, and I’m probably no more than four or five years old. I’m wearing a white shirt with horizontal stripes, and I want to say that the stripes are red and green and maybe blue. My hair is still quite blond, and it’s cut in that bowl-cut that every boy on the verge of kindergarten has. In the picture, I’ve laid my head on Dad’s lap and I look like maybe I’m about to fall asleep.

At least this was how I recalled it last night. Were I to find and scan the picture, we might all see how badly I’ve remembered it. But I’m sure you won’t argue that, regardless of that, this is, in and of itself, quite a pleasant memory, not something you’d think would elicit the kind of reaction that it did.

But the problem is that my mind works in ridiculous ways. When I thought of this picture, I thought of my own child, still in utero, and how there was a chance, however remote, that I might never be there to sit for a photograph like this. My eyes welled up, I choked back a sob, and then I breathed in and breathed out, and I was better. But for a moment, I was overwhelmed by it all.

My birthday is on Wednesday, a symbolic end to a trying year, and I’d like to think that the arrival of that day which I look forward to so much every year, will purge me of at least some of these demons for at least a little while. We shall see.