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Opinion | The Many Deaths of William Holden Taught Me How to Be Anxious

My father grew up in Egypt, where he once saw an organ-grinder’s baboon go rogue and gouge out a child’s eye. To him, the world was full of perils that many Americans simply couldn’t see, in large part because America was insulated from many of the dangers that citizens in other countries took for granted. Since Americans didn’t experience air raids, how could they possibly understand something as elementary as falling onto the subway tracks or slipping in the bathroom? Americans understood the theory of a threat, but not the threat itself, and that was reflected, or so my father seemed to believe, in the way they cautioned their children.

On Nov. 12, 1981, William Holden died while running through Central Park with his hands in his pockets. An unruly tree stump — or was it a warped cobblestone? — caught his foot, and he fell on his face, went into a coma and never woke.

Most of Mr. Holden’s deaths were the result of physical accidents born of commonplace recklessness. True, there was the time Mr. Holden died after wandering away from his parents at the Museum of Natural History and walking into the arms of kidnappers. But he was far more likely to die because he took his sweater off at the top of a stairwell and accidentally tumbled to the bottom.

My father’s biggest fear for me was that I’d go through life unaware of the potential dangers lurking around every corner. The fear of dying like William Holden haunted me. But now I am beginning to realize that if I ever become a father, I might use similar fables to teach of danger. William Holden died 1,000 deaths so that I could lead one relatively safe life.

These stories fundamentally shaped how I assess every risk. I’m aware of dangers most rational humans are not, like the way taxis stop two feet over the crosswalk, increasing the risk of getting hit even at a green light, or how a spooked carriage horse in Central Park might rear up and accidentally strike my skull. I don’t like to walk after a heavy rainstorm because I worry a damaged tree might fall and kill me. It might seem ridiculous, but I once pulled a friend out of the path of falling ice. So you never know.

In 2020, when constant risk assessment became necessary, the logic behind my dad’s stories bloomed. Surely William Holden would have contracted Covid after going to the 21 Club for martinis or schmoozing with strangers, maskless, on a cross-country flight. My siblings and I double-masked before it was in vogue and biked to work to avoid the subway. This level of caution was exactly what our father had been training us for all our lives.

And yet my father seemed strangely oblivious. He did things like make several trips daily to the grocery store for items such as a single onion. Hadn’t he listened to his own stories? Didn’t he know how the great actor would have died in November 2020? Were these stories simply my dad’s way of overcompensating for his own faulty radar for danger, hoping I might grow up to know better?

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