My fear of headlessness began at an early age—at first mistaken for a fear of Rapture, which was actually a fear of not being raptured. This was ridiculous. I’d prayed to receive Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior a hundred times...thousands counting revival altar calls and last night of church camp bonfires. There was no way in hell I was going to miss the Rapture. So no, I wasn’t afraid of not meeting Christ in the air (naked apparently). I was afraid of the guillotine. I was afraid of having my head cut off by the anti-Christ’s goons.
My parents swear that my first cinema experience was sleeping through PATTON as an infant. But my first real movie memory—still plain as day—was seeing the Christploitation double feature: A THIEF IN THE NIGHT and A DISTANT THUNDER in a church basement...mid to late 70s.
These movies are about a woman who is only marginally a Christian...not Born Again. I mean, she goes to church and all...celebrates Christmas for the right reasons, doesn’t hate Jesus, but she’s not fully there, you know? One morning she wakes up and all of her family and friends have vanished. She’s been left behind. Which ultimately means that she must refuse the Anti-Christ’s mark or face eternity in Hell.
And there’s all these people trying to make her get the Mark of the Beast on her right hand or forehead—it’s like a tattoo of a UPC symbol. Or, made modern, an iPhone app linked to your checking account.
So eventually, this woman, she refuses the mark, gets caught, and faces execution for not going along with the IRS.
I'm not sure why the One-World Government of the not-so-distant thunder used an 18th century execution device—maybe they were trying to send a message. But it was not uncommon in End Times fiction to see guillotines used to eliminate the left behinds...and this terrified me. Imagine...you either get a tattoo on your hand and go to Hell, or you get your head cut off and go to Heaven.
Such angst inevitably led to a fear of getting a bad haircut in middle school.
I started going to Kenneth Shuler’s in 7th Grade when my longtime barber (Terry, from The Rogue at Dutch Square Mall) became an instructor there. Shuler's should have been a safe bet. After you get your hair cut by an aspiring stylist, the pro (Terry) comes by to check the work, fix any problems...to use your head as his real-world lab/classroom. All for half the price of a regular salon.
Still, every other time it seemed like I left there looking like a kid who wanted to be Rod Stewart (I didn’t)...or Moe. Even today, as a 45 year-old man, I get nervous when my barber up and moves to Charleston without any warning REBECCA YOU DISLOYAL ASS.
All of which leads me to Alzheimer’s—the ultimate decapitation and my greatest fear. Because research says it’s inherited, and my grandmother had it.
Or was it my aunt?
(It’s okay. I’m allowed to crack dementia jokes. The only upside of seeing your grandmother lose her mind.)
My dad’s mom was stricter than my mom's mom. Not as funny. She hustled, worked harder than you did. She was entrepreneurial, started businesses and push things forward. To boot, my grandmother liked to brag on her grand kids—and take credit for stuff. Sometimes, maybe too much credit.
When I was a kid, she gave me an old camera. Not a good camera; one that used old-fashioned film that came in spools and made square pictures...the kind of film K-Mart needed two years to process.
“You know, when I gave Chris that camera in fourth grade...I just knew he'd grow up to be a photographer!”
One time she came to Atlanta to see me play John Proctor in a college production of “The Crucible." At the end, she started the standing ovation from her seat on the front row. After the play she reminded me: “When I was a girl, I used to star in all the operettas at school!”
I have this recurring nightmare that the moment I start my descent into dementia, my grandmother will appear like a ghost:
“I used to forget where I left my keys and who my husband was, too!”
Alzheimer’s is an affliction of the head that ultimately breaks your heart. One day you’re healthy as a horse and taking credit for your grandson’s accomplishments, the next you’re slipping into befuddlement...and eventually loneliness. Quiet. Then, when your number is finally called, neither you nor those you have loved to pieces—people you would have given your life for—none of you remember who any of you were.
When my grandmother finally passed, my folks were out of town, unreachable by phone. So the nursing home called me. It was about 10:00 on a Saturday night. I answered the call and a nurse explained that she couldn’t reach my dad.
“Theda White has expired.”
I’d never heard the word “expired” applied to a person. It was like my dad’s mom, this whip-smart, lovely, proud woman from Copperhill, Tennessee...a lady who wore those hipster, cat-eye glasses non-ironically...this good, decent woman who’d never attended a yoga class or wore blue jeans or ever missed a Bob Hope television special...Granny. This woman who read a Bible through every year and gave it to one of her grand kids every Christmas (with her not-necessarily-theologically correct commentary handwritten in the margins)...this grandmother of Chris White was day old milk, unpurchased, marked down, and left on the shelf at the Piggly Wiggly.
Her time was up. And the rest of us had been left behind.
I imagine, at least for a second, after the guillotine blade drops and your head tumbles into the recycling bin... I bet, for a moment, you can still see. You can still think...and feel. And that you finally see yourself, apart from yourself...for this brief, terrifying second.
You get to see how in this penultimate moment, you are truly alone. Disembodied. Headless. And maybe (geez, who knows?), maybe you think of your grandmother who lost her mind instead of her head. And suddenly, as life fades to black, you get the last laugh. Because you get to wake up in Heaven.
And there to greet you is your happy Granny, beaming... taking all the credit.
"Decapitated" was written for (and performed at) Alchemy Comedy's "Truth Be Told" live storytelling show, 30 October 2015. The assigned topic: FEAR.