As I shuffle through the fallen leaves that have blanketed my favorite running path, I tell myself I should pick up the pace and really get moving, but today, I just can’t. I walk quickly,… More
Eyes flying open, my heart skips half a beat. What is that ungodly sound? I pick up my phone and remember. I had set my alarm. It is 5:30 am. How can it be time to get up already? I JUST closed my eyes a minute ago. The decision awaits; one of the most important I will make, throughout the day.
I stick to the promise I made to me, the night before- swinging my legs over the side of the bed into another day.
As wearying as it is to be up at this time of day, I’ve come to love it.
Settled in to a corner of the couch, lights low, coffee in hand-it’s just me and my notebook.
There is nothing more sacred than this.
Waiting in calm.
Writing in silence.
The opportunity to make space for my thoughts.
Carving out this time is beyond important, for it is here, that I am in harmony with myself.
Trying ever tactic under the newly risen sun, I have never been able to get my exhausted body out of bed before their voices, like the chirping of two little hungry birds, would finally rouse me out of that warm space and into the jarring activity of a new morning.
Until I let myself start writing again.
Scratching the sleep from my eyes, sweeping cobwebs from my mind, I savor a sip and let out the breath I’ve been holding accidentally. This space is so still; even breathing seems as if it would be too loud, that it would somehow be irreverent. I begin to write my Morning Work- just three pages of whatever comes out through the end of my pen. There’s no judgement, no editing, no crossing out or adding to, just my spirit and the paper. Alone and together, we begin our work.
I have so missed this part of my day. I have so missed this part of myself.
Before I was Mama, I would spend hours pouring into journals and binders, selecting just the right pen. I’d use oil pastels and draw out my day in vibrant splashes of texture and contemplate all the happenings of my world. But somehow, the pages of ponderings and poetry, my expressions, my illusions and delusions, had all been replaced by other artwork created for a slighter younger audience. I’d finish reading ‘Skippy John Jones’ for the 25th time, only to wake up on a pillow of another author’s crumpled pages…there just wasn’t anything left at the end of the night, for me.
I did all the good mothering things that good mothers do, and on the wings of my second wind, if there were still any brain cells left, after dinner dishes, puzzle pickups and feeding of the cat, I’d pull out my computer and get lost in the world of planning: birthday parties and nature outings, what size is he wearing in socks? Potty training how-to’s and will the chemicals in the M&M’s really cause brain damage? Will they survive past 12 if they eat anything that is not organic? Remembering an article I’d read on Facebook, I’d surmise that it was really a wonder anyone survives at all.
After all the physical work that led to the mental work that would lead me to the end of my day, the rest of my thoughts would get thrown into a pile, like the library books and junk mail waiting for me on the corner of my desk in the living room. It would grow, and grow, and I would promise and promise. I’ll get to them soon, those thoughts of mine, those truths to contemplate. But the ‘overwhelmingness’ of sorting through them all, what was worth saving and keeping, in the state of bottomed out motherhood, was more than I could handle, and so I did what I have come to do with the piles of laundry that block my way to the door: I closed my eyes and told myself that I if couldn’t see them, then they must not be there.
Those complicated thinkings that didn’t have anything to do with them.
Little snippets of life that revolved just around me.
But then I noticed the emptiness. It would come over me, at first, when I was by myself, spraying down the kitchen counters, or eyeing the giant loads of laundry I had neglected to fold. It was fleeting and subtle, easy to push aside. FORTUNATELY, it began coming on more frequently, and for longer periods of time, and although I wondered and worried, and even started to panic a little bit, it propelled me to that imaginary desk of my mind, and finally, after long periods of denial, I started poking around, cautiously, amongst all those piled up thoughts.
While unearthing myself from that massive stack of emotions and needs and wants, I came across a book that I had long since put aside, promising I would ‘get to it soon.’ It, of course, was no accident that, while I was quickly leafing through it, in the midst of all my ‘sorting’, one of the first quotes to catch my eye was the wisdom of Carl Jung. In it he says:
“Nothing has a stronger influence on a child psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived life of the parent. “
It sent a lightning bolt through my body, filled my weary eyes to the brim with hot and burning tears.
I realized, with stark clarity, that I was not living MY life.
I was living THEIRS, or what I thought should be theirs, and the truth is, I was doing it because it was easier for me to do that than figuring out how to live my own. One night after stories and songs, kisses and cuddles, I sat down, by myself, and in the silence and end of the day light, the truth finally opened up.
I was living their life because I was too AFRAID to actually live mine.
It wasn’t really because it was easier, or because I was too tired or whatever very valid reason I had come up with.
It was because it was safer.
It was because the stakes were not as high, if I were to mess up.
Screwing up a kangaroo cake was much more forgivable, I had subconsciously decided, than trying to actually do something I felt created for (this is not to exclude those who love to make kangaroo cakes, because if you do, then, rock on.)
But that would mean I would have to find out if I was good at what I was meant to do or if I actually really sucked at it.
And well, that is very scary.
And then the realization that I had been putting EVERYTHING I AM into the littlest parts of EVERYTHING THEY ARE, by giving them what I thought they needed, while ever so well intentioned, had also given me a free pass on asking myself the hardest question of all:
What if I found out I loved something else just as much as I loved them?
What if I wanted to spend a little bit of my time doing something else, that didn’t revolve around them?
What if- Oh and GOD, this is so hard to write down….
What if I let myself love myself….just a LITTLE BIT MORE?
Did that mean that I would love them a little bit LESS?
It all got me to wondering: How is it that, when your children come into your life, your heart expands to the most enormous of proportions. It grows so much you fear it might burst, but despite all that new found space your heart has found, eventually, there doesn’t seem to be any room left for… you?
I mean, we love them with ALL our hearts….don’t we?
Of course we do.
But does it mean I love with less than my whole heart if I spend that extra 30 minutes following a stream of inspiration and end up ordering a pizza instead of cooking a homemade meal, or whatever I never get around to making for them, because I made something for myself instead?
Does it mean I love them a little bit less if I let them watch one more show and use that time to write down that quote that I thought about in the wee early hours of the morning, and I just have to do it now or I might forget?
Does it mean I am less of a mother if I read one story instead of three because I am exhausted and want to crawl into bed so I can be ready to write in the morning?
Of course not. This is what ALL of us would say.
I can imagine we are sitting across the table from each other, and because its been a tough day, we are sharing a delectable brownie and we both have a double cappuccino in a REAL CUP. My tears are threatening, and you take my hand and assure me that it is ok, my kids shouldn’t be the center of my Universe ALL. THE. TIME. You tell me I am a good mom, and my kids are great and that it’s ok to put myself first once in a while.
Thanks, I needed that. And maybe you do too.
When you get a minute, perhaps you could sit down at the table with yourself. Look at her with the same compassion you look at me with and tell yourself exactly what you just told me. And don’t forget the brownie and the coffee to go with it.
It’s all worth it. This figuring it all out.
Letting myself love myself, just a little bit more, has surprisingly allowed me to love them a little bit more too. It’s that paradoxical mathematical equation where (more + less) = more.
More me. For just a little bit, anyway.
And as I watch the pink morning sky fade into a bluesh gray, I hear the patter of little feet coming down the hall in search for me. I close my notebook, for my time here is done, but I take comfort in confidence- it won’t be long until I’m back again.
And that is all the assurance I need.
Watching a bumble bee make its way slowly around the late summer blooms, I absentmindedly wonder what it must feel like for that to be the only thing you really have to think about- in all your entire life.
Sustaining and pollinating.
Very important work-
Vital to the evolution of our whole organism, and yet, there really is no thinking about it all.
It’s all about survival.
Weaving in and out of layered gardens, together with the bugs and the trees, my senses are saturated by the sounds of water trickling, splashing onto all the green and red and yellow. I run my fingertips through soft grasses and over velvet petals as I inhale the scent of growth and life, right here, right now, as my search for perennials begins. I carry a hope to fill up empty spaces in my garden but there is a yearning to fill a hole in my heart.
It’s been four years since I left the gardens and deserts that changed me, so utterly, completely, and profoundly.
Oh. How I miss them every day.
After we left those places, the longing became so unbearable, like that of missing a long lost lover who you know will never return to you, no matter how much time is spent in yearning and regret.
Some days, I could hardly breathe from the pain of it all.
Just to go back and plant my feet firmly into that brilliant red Earth- one more lazy Sunday afternoon to lie beneath the avocado trees that, every day at morning’s break, would generously nourish my child with his first foods.
Doubt and anger would regularly stream down my face as my heart kept breaking over and over- finding places I didn’t even know it had grown.
If you were to look up the definition of ‘homesick’ in the dictionary, there would be a picture of my soulless eyes staring back at you.
I felt like an alien in my own land- a stranger to myself.
I was afraid- and believed I was so very alone.
And as is the way of it, what I was most afraid of was what I needed most to do.
But how could I let Africa go?
If I let Her go, I was convinced, it would be as if the good parts had never happened. If I let go and settled HERE, it would be as if who I had become there, had never even existed. Like it had all been some distant, far-fetched dream.
I had completed my metamorphosis amongst the bright lavender blooms of the Jacaranda tree- I had arrived there a girl, but left a woman. I’d become a wife and a mother.
Africa gifted me with the opportunity to learn exactly what I was made of.
A fighter, a survivor, braver than any of my childish dreams.
If I wasn’t there, rooted in the richness and reality of those experiences- was I still really any of those things?
She had found me, I decided, so she could keep me.
I held on.
I relived the glory days- if only in my mind.
And as a result, I forgot how to grow.
Roots buried in a shallow surface of the past, I convinced myself that was all I needed. I figured out a comfortable way to keep lingering in a cracked pot of memories, because it was mingled together with the only African soil I had left. I refused to mix in any other dirt, as I was waiting for the time when I would be transplanted back “home”, placed in the garden I had conjured up in my mind.
The grass was so much greener out there in that other space. I was sure of it, because I had seen it with my rose colored glasses. I figured I could wait.
But while I was waiting, I slowly began noticing how dried out I was becoming, how limp and lifeless I was feeling. How parched and thirsty I was- for connection , for a place to lay down my roots.
I was withering away, in my broken pot, the fertile freshness of new beginnings all around, and still I refused to get out because I was just so overwhelmed and I guess, afraid-of the work, of the fear itself-of letting go.
My husband came to me one evening, and in the exhaustion that is left at the end of an evening full of stories and bedtimes and trips to the potty that were the result of limitless sips of water. He confessed to me, tears pooling in his eyes, that he could tell I was withering, and try as he might, he just couldn’t figure out how to keep me watered anymore. My pot, confining and ‘safe,’ was cracked to the point of no return, and everything he kept pouring into me was leaking out. Fear had left me too hard to absorb anything. Anger had fueled the energy to pack my roots together, leaving no space. Life giving water was just rolling right off the top, being wasted in a puddle on the floor.
So sweetly, so selflessly, he promised, “Whatever you need, wherever you should go, whatever you want to do- please figure it out. For me, for the kids, but mostly for you. We can’t watch you wither away….we need you come back to life, to grow- we need you to bloom.”
So, on a cold and sunshine filled March morning, I gathered with a group of women who were just like me, and completely different. We were a colorful array of cultures and races, life stories and experiences. We were there to learn about plants. We meditated in our teacher’s sacred gardens, spreading fingers and toes within the blooming life of chickweed and violets, singing heart songs, writing soul poems, mingling with the Earth, waiting for connection.
Together, we discarded the confinement of our damaged pots, using the cracked pieces to make a mosaic, reminding us of the hard times that had brought us to this place. We sought out growing spaces full of green, ready to be cultivated, waiting just for us, in the great bright Sun. Every month since, we enter the garden, together, with the plants, who are becoming stronger and brighter and lovelier, as they are fed and nourished by the Earth- the rain and the Sun….together, we are finding ourselves, each other, The Way.
I step back and survey the work that I have just completed- I’m digging around in blooming beds- I just planted a native Virginia Butterfly Weed, touted to attract winged creatures, striped bees and all the good garden kinds of things. The hostas are blooming, and the Motherwort is spreading like crazy, the tippy tops of her proud little head peeking out their new growth of lavender that I will soon harvest and make into a tincture.
As I rest beneath the shade of our giant Magnolia, I am struck by her fragrance and presence, solid and feminine, steadfast and present, always evergreen. I consider the power of acceptance in Nature, and think about a time out hiking, when we came across a tree trunk that had been forced to grow into a strange, unnatural U shape. It was amazing in its ability to adapt and be molded by its environment. It is survival at its best- becoming a work of art, as it had figured out how to grow around whatever had gotten in its way.
The tree never stopped growing, and although it took me some time to realize, as most things do, it turns out, neither had I.
Envisioning my garden growing, and what it would look like a few years from now reminded me that when we surrender and accept where we ARE, we suddenly realize where we are, is in fact, exactly where we NEED to be. And when we are where we need to be, we eventually understand that place, even if it is the furthest space from where we ever dreamed it, in the end, is all we really ever wanted anyway.
I miss Africa every day, but finally, with bare feet rooted in the Virginia soil, working alongside my ever patient husband, raising these two little beings so lovely and so loved, I can say, as I scoop that last bit of soil into my weary hands, I am EXACTLY where I want to be.
I knew we shouldn’t have left the house today- I just KNEW it. With the eclipse coming and all that pressure to not look up at the sky- I should have known better. In fact, after lunch, I even sat silent in contemplation, sipping my third cup of coffee trying to convince myself to get out and go, but my ‘Mom Gut’ (not to be confused with the belly I’ve developed from birthing babies and too much chips and salsa, but rather the space BEHIND all of that, otherwise known as ‘Mother’s Intuition’) told me in her most firm and unequivocal way, “NO. Stay home, let the kids binge on goldfish and Netflix. They will be ok. Today is not your day.” But then two shrieking creatures took over my living room killing any inner monologue or stream of consciousness that ever was, with all that screaming (what is UP WITH ALL THAT SCREAMING?) over a dumb game of ‘bird memory’ and I was like: HELL NO.
We gotta get out of here.
All is good and well- we’re splashing around, waiting for the eclipse, hanging in the sun. I kick the kids back into the pool and zone out, the two-foot depth just high enough to cover my butt and thighs, so you know, I’m feeling ok. My Girly Girl and I bob together in the water- it is hot out, but this moment right here, is as good as its going to get. Big Brother is off with his friends, ottering around, having presumably, a great time. I make a joke with another mom next to me, we cheer on the little guy who has just learned to swim. I’m congratulating myself for having the gumption to get out and go when I turn, and see him. He is frantically swimming toward me, lips pursed into a peculiar, yet somewhat familiar line. I vaguely recognize his movements and think, ‘I’ve seen that look before….???’ It takes me just the splash of a second, but I realize very quickly, with horror, as he hurls himself toward me, hands clasped over his mouth, freaked out eyes unblinking, dripping with tears:
Oh MY God. He’s gonna completely puke in the freaking pool.
As he gets to the edge and hurls his torso onto the concrete, I put little sis back down into the water and do the only thing that comes naturally.
I catch it.
I freaking catch it.
All of it.
In both of my hands.
And as I’m holding his lunch, I am simultaneously picturing all of these mothers who have planned their afternoons eclipse watching, snack serving and splashing with their tiny tots, slashing my tires as they are forced to drag their kids out of the pool, screaming and kicking, missing the historical solar event-a perfectly planned afternoon in shambles- pool closed because it’s policy, all because my kid choked on chlorine water.
I know, I know, it all sounds rather dramatic. And let me assure you, we swim with very nice people, even though I am imagining them to be total A holes. But that’s what embarrassment does to you, and well, let me just say, you weren’t there.
And I’ve got to be honest- the thought that people are seeing you and your mom bod in a swimsuit is always disconcerting. Just like many of you, I’ve read all those ‘mommy blogs’ that send out statements of righteous indignation and declare the only sensible thing we can do is to Put on your damn swimsuit but I KNOW I’m not the only one who takes off my wrap, and refuses to make eye contact until I have made it thigh deep into the water. But, I can now tell you through today’s experience, that there are actually worse things than someone staring at you and judging you about your taste in a maternal one piece- and that would be you and your kid, at the center of everyone’s attention, top hanging out of your ill fitting swimsuit, standing on the edge of the pool, hands full of puke, trying desperately not to let it drip into the water, unable to adjust yourself, because…..OH MY GOSH. WHY???
Why didn’t we JUST STAY HOME?
WHY did I even get out of bed this morning?
I finally get him out of the pool and see my friend across the water. “Erin, can you please help me?” I call out in the calmest of desperation.
THIS IS THE BEAUTY THAT BINDS US TOGETHER IN MOTHERHOOD.
She immediately goes on to conduct a 30 second assessment, sees my hands full of barf, my top half-exposed, and without blinking a sun-glass covered eye, swings right into action. Before I know it, Auggie is situated with a garbage can over in the shade, another mom has been located to watch Ebba Jane and a life guard has been alerted and is on his way, garden hose in hand.
Meanwhile, I’m like a hawk, guarding my son’s pile. No one better step in this and then get into the pool.
After all of this- the damn thing had better stay open.
“He just choked on some water…” I feebly offer an apology to him as he comes toward me with a hose.
‘Ugh.’ He says, gagging. ‘These things happen.’ He manages to let me off the hook.
Barf running down my arms, I awkwardly manage to haul myself over edge onto a clean part of the concrete.
As I walk the gauntlet of shame, ALL THE WAY TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PROPERTY, to the restroom, The Puker in tow- I feel my face burning, and I know, it’s not from the sun.
I can’t manage eye contact with anyone. They can’t manage eye contact with me. The collective sigh that is amongst them all breathes out one thought, and one thought only: ‘Oh, THANK GOD, that wasn’t my kid.’
As I stare at myself in the mirror over the sink, scrubbing the stink off my arms and hands, I briefly wonder if anyone will notice if I don’t come out to claim my children and just stay in the bathroom and hide.
Realizing this is not a viable option, I figure it’s now or never and I fix my swimsuit top, finally, make sure Auggie is ok, and attempt to invisibly walk back to my chair by the side of the pool.
A mom I’ve only chatted with on occasion leans over to me quietly and relays their puking fiasco a few weeks earlier. It sounds like it was horrible, but OH… the relief! We chuckle a little, and I thank her for telling me- it helps to know I’m not alone.
It takes a few more cleansing breaths, but I realize:
I’m not alone in the embarrassment.
I’m not alone in the work.
I’m not alone in the problem solving and the ‘crisis management.’
I’m not alone when I want to cry but need to laugh.
I’m not alone when my hands are full and I need someone to be another set for me.
As I watch Auggie sitting with all of his friends, post-puke, munching on a chocolate ice-cream cone, laughing in delight, the whole ordeal rightfully forgotten, I remind myself that catching every single part of him is what I signed up for. I’m a mom. I’m HIS mama. And although today it all felt really hard, I recognize the privilege of it all.
And as I look around and feel the support in friendship, the mutual understanding of this sometimes very literally messy thing called motherhood, I finally am brave enough to make eye contact.
I pull my swimsuit up, just a little higher…
And then, I begin to laugh.
My foot hits something hard and crunchy on the floor as I finish my breakfast. I look under the table and find several parts of dried up waffles littering the carpet. I’m ashamed, but only slightly. The little one swings her feet in summertime freedom as she munches her morning meal. I stare at the wall. My thoughts, they ARE there, hovering- it’s just so hard to harness them, as they swirl in and amongst the to-do lists, the constant demands and requests, the baggage of life. Motherhood. Survival. Which one came first?
Dishes clink together as they go into the sink. I take another long drag of cold coffee and lift my tired body out of the chair and nearly slice my left foot on a week of dropped breakfasts. I need to get the vacuum out. It sits in the middle of the living room for three whole days- a witness to my domestic failures, chastising me, at the end of every day, as if she’s keeping score.
And she’s not the only one.
I am keeping score too- of how many sacrifices I have made today, how many solo trips to the bathroom I’ve had. How many band-aids I’ve had to locate and apply, loads of laundry I have NOT done, how many questions about bats I have promised to YouTube…You see, I’m no martyr here. And I do actually think I’m kind of mad. I’m mad because I have things to create, words to write, important thoughts that need to be brought out into this world. “I have so much potential!” I lament outloud to the vacuum, as she and I stare at each other from across the room. Heavy sighs- those waffles are not going to pick themselves up.
I realize quite quickly that I really should vacuum more, getting lost in the monotone of the machine, more of a quiet roar than a hum, she blocks out every other sound or question that would demand I drop my immediate and fullest of attention. Here, in the song of the mundane, I can actually THINK, I discover, and be alone with the person I miss the most-
Maybe, I’ve found a friend.
With uncharacteristic diligence, I clean the cracks and the corners, the stairs, moving to closets and behind furniture. The crackle of crumbs as they are sucked up into the device, become a rhythm, a beat, to which I am beginning to enjoy.
I start thinking about how difficult it is when your head gets out from below the surface of the waters of life. It seems counterintuitive because when you are in survival mode, that’s ALL you can think about. But that’s the beauty of it- and the secret to enduring it, I suppose. There is no space for thinking anything else other than just ‘Stay ALIVE!’ It’s fight of flight, at its most basic and domestic of levels.
But I’m not there anymore. The gulping and gasping for air has transitioned as the muck of babies and up all nights and changing dirty diapers has been replaced by a gentle bobbing, that in the end surprises me, as it proves to be more exhausting and ultimately frustrating, because I don’t feel like I am ever making any progress-I am just treading. In the gasping and grasping years, it’s enough success to just keep everyone alive and be able to say, “Hey, I got a shower today AND I brushed my hair!” That’s an accomplishment of extraordinary proportions when you’ve got babies.
But now, as the intensity is easing up, I realize:
I want more.
I am greedy.
Surviving just isn’t enough.
I want to get to shore. I want more than just to float and bob and tread in a big beautiful sea of blue.
But float and bob, I do. Going under from time to time, because I’m always in it with these two little people, who are genuinely trying hard to learn how to float by themselves, but quite naturally, just aren’t ready to swim out there on their own yet.
I wistfully wonder, looking around. When am I going to get there?
I see it- it’s so close, the shore, where I think I need to be, but my energy feels like it’s too far away. My body knows it can’t make it.
And what IS ‘THERE’ so to speak? And why do I want to get to it anyway?
The crack of something that shouldn’t have been sucked up, snaps me out of the water and back into my living room.
All this while vacuuming?
Last weekend, just as the sun was coming up, warming the Earth, in that end of summer kind of way, the four of us set out, doing what we love most in the world- hiking through trails of ancient leafy trees, along gurgling rivers, with the promise of a waterfall and a picnic lunch to end our hard work and beautiful day. Big Brother, unusually vocal about his dissatisfaction at his current situation, expressed the singular, most asked question echoed all over the world by traveling kids, set out to exponentially annoy their parents:
“When are we going to be THERE?’ He whined, draping himself over a huge moss covered rock. The river was rushing beside us, the ground was firm and beautiful beneath our feet. We were all healthy and strong, we had coffee and candy in our packs, and as I gulped in the fresh air and the smells that only Nature can make, I spewed out in exasperation:
“August. We ARE THERE. THIS. This is THERE, all around you. We are already and always will be THERE.”
He looked at me, didn’t say a word, made the decision to keep going, albeit begrudgingly, and kept walking. Typically, three minutes later he became distracted by the wonder of a millipede and excitedly called me over to look. Stooping down to inspect the crawling creature, I felt my throat close up with tears. I realized how he had just acted out what I do daily in my head.
My mental whining and incessant complaining: “When am I going to get there?”
Wherever THERE is.
When am I going to get to the point where I can really focus on writing or my career or figuring out who I AM or who I want to be, after trauma and survival, motherhood and other stuff?
When will I feel like I am swimming instead of just treading water all the time?
Making progress, headway….when will a full night of sleep be enough? When will I…….
The list is endless and not comprehensive.
And now, I’m sort of wondering, who ever told me treading water was a such a BAD thing? That it’s NOT enough. It’s exhausting, that’s for sure, but also toning and strength building, necessary for that EXACT moment in time, when they are ready to set me free.
Tears will mingle with the water as they use me to push off, and my hope is that we’ll all swim together, back to that ever illusive shore, laughing and splashing, capable and strong, because we allowed time to take what it needed to take, and I finally gave in, relaxed back into the water, looked up at that big beautiful sky, and decided to breathe.
There are places to go, but that is for then, and I’ve surrendered.
Here for now.
Contemplating my cleanish floors, I recognize, with satisfaction and understanding, if only for a single fleeting moment:
Keep treading water.
It’s worth it.
Because I am already there.
Sitting here, trying to be grateful for all of it, today.
But in the end, irritation prevails as my plans for work and escaping the house and never ending demands of motherhood have been thwarted by the most demanding of all, a vomiting toddler.
A good excuse to stay in and vacuum countless cracker crumbs up off the neglected living room floor while sick toddler and just fine older brother binge watch Netflix on this hot and muggy morning. At least I finally have that chance to clean those living room windows so I can actually see what’s happening out there in a world that I feel is spinning around at warp speed while this inner world which I have chosen seems to be standing still.
The struggle so many of us face. Those who have chosen this lifestyle, or maybe the life style chose us, yearning to be singing as Snow White in constant optimism of the most menial of jobs, but in reality acknowledging, as we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the hallway mirror, noticing we are wearing breakfast instead of eating it, that each day feels a little bit like all the rest, and wondering, when will we finally get a chance to write that short story that has been brewing for months in the back of our brains? When will we have the energy to finally read that book- or even just get through the first damned chapter without falling asleep? When will w find the time and energy to stop drinking white wine during the witching hour and finally lose that 10 pounds? When?
When will it get easier? This load of being constantly needed- forever wanted -always being touched?
Sometimes I think it actually hurts my body, all this constant needing. And just as I twist to work that kink out of my crooked and tender back, someone falls on the floor in a sobbing heap, or has drawn me the most prolific of pictures and my attention once again goes from my own aches and pains, sorrows and griefs to that of kissing boo-boos and knees, washing sticky fingers and retrieving yet ANOTHER snack as the afternoon gives way to another evening of warm and yellow summer sun.
I really should be more thankful.
The older one, crawls onto me as I am trying to settle in on the sofa, savoring the luxury of a second cup of coffee for the day, while the younger one is passed out, letting sleep heal and do its thing, sits up and runs his finger over the scar still healing across my neck and asks me if it hurts. Not anymore, I tell him, taking another sip.
He asks to hear the story of how he was born- inwardly, I know, as much as I am craving solitude and caffeine, these moments of connection matter, for me, even more than him really, and so I begin, searching my memory for the very abridged version, because he’s still too young to understand the meaning of time and how it heals, or at least this is my belief.
I refrain from telling him about the moment I realized I was pregnant with him only weeks after the greatest trauma I will ever endure, and how I didn’t think I could be a mother in the state I was in, but that motherhood, at that EXACT time, was indeed, and forever more will have been the greatest and most generous gift that has ever been granted me.
After a few memories, he finishes his own story of life by describing how he popped out of my belly and then the doctors stitched me up. I smile and leave it for another day. Seems about right.
Did having him pop out of my belly hurt? He asks.
I tell him the truth.
It hurt a lot. But more than just the stitches in my tummy.
I leave that part out, only for me.
Knowing and so wise, his soulful brown eyes, I swear, could see, just for an instant, into my mother’s soul as he gently shook his head and answered:
It’s ok for things to hurt sometimes, Mama, they won’t hurt forever…it takes time, but things always heal.
Then he laid down next to me, and within moments, fell into a deep and delicious sleep.
I write this so I can remember. In case my mind betrays me someday and decides to forget. When I am hopefully old and listless, knowing I’m the burden instead of the lifter, I want to find a copy of this pasted inside my journal so I can remember the long days that belong to the short years, that the hours spent seemingly doing nothing, but in the space and time of watching butterflies dance and birds flit in and out, whiling away hours answering the same questions, picking up the same toys thinking the same thoughts…all of that time I wasn’t doing nothing-
All that time, I was just healing.
It’s a glorious, sunshine filled day. The light from every angle at which I stand seems to make the flowers and trees and even single solitary blades of grass look like they are dancing.
I love- LOVE- these kinds of days. They ring of fresh starts, filled full of singing and sighing- that sigh that you do when you feel complete and content, hopeful about all that can become.
These kinds of days whisper promises of quiet strength. Soft in their fortitude, rest for the weary, hope for the downtrodden.
I’m grateful for it- this day. Just to be experiencing it and noticing it, as it’s been a draining and emotionally exhausting span of space for me as of late. I am downtrodden for sure. Nothing especially special has happened. Thank GOD, we are all fine, we are all well, we are all free. We have a (literally new) roof over our heads, nutritious food to eat, we have our health, we are not frantic, over-scheduled, or exhausted. We have green all around us, the firmness of the Earth beneath us, good friends to keep us grounded- community telling us that we are loved and are lucky enough to have the assurance that we are not alone.
Life is good. It’s as it should be.
For me, anyway.
I was pretty surprised, when a few days ago, that little backpack I can’t ever seem courageous enough to put down for good, The Past, or as I often think of her, ‘One of my Past Lives’ (as there have been many) literally blew her top and out of the clear blue sparkling Spring sky, dropped a mother of a memory onto me, rendering me on the floor, immobile, crying uncontrollably for hours on end, wondering, not for the first time, if this was it- the moment I have always been trepidatiously waiting for- and I had finally hit the point of no return.
Was this me, losing my mind?
I’ve imagined what it would be like, this losing my mind thing, having watched someone very close to me, endure the process of playing hide and seek with one of our most allusive partners in life-The Psyche. It’s horrific, exhausting, bone achingly so. Many of us have been bystanders and watched this game play out, whether for someone else, or like a bird hovering over the shell that once embodied us, we know- none of us are immune. Anxiety attacks, debilitating depression. Being too afraid to live, but too afraid not to, a purgatory like space that many refer to as reality- I watched my mother balance in this arena for a very long time. Depression always taunting haughtily, as she knew she was already winning the game, ‘Ready or not, here I come…’ and all the while, me, singing the child’s song, ‘Come back to me…’
It’s a hard thing to remember, but all I can think about in this very moment.
Was IT finally coming for me? Five years after the greatest trauma I will hopefully ever experience in this life; four years after unexpected motherhood applied her pressure and forced me to live for others not just for myself; seven years after losing her, the Greatest Victor of it ALL, my mother.
I can’t pick up the phone to ask for the best hiding places.
And ready or not- here it comes.
Like a tidal wave-you see it coming, but you are so indescribably paralyzed and all you can do is pray whatever mantra to whatever Being may or may not be listening and hope that you survive the deluge.
This is very difficult to write.
The shame and embarrassment after this latest episode filled me, for a time, to the brim. As the reservoir gave way and overflowed into all the crevices of my spirit and mind, it mixed with my angry tears and created yet another wave so big and strong that I could only watch in amazement as it washed over me once again, without time to recover from the first one, leaving me sputtering and gasping for air, for light, for reprieve. As my heart grappled for anything around her to help her stay afloat, I realized all she was holding on to was the confusion and hurt pride, betrayal of her senses and The Fear: you know, THE BIG ONE- we all know it-
I quite literally couldn’t breathe.
I WAS DROWNING. In anxiety perpetuated by triggers, feelings of overwhelming anger and the inability to understand what was happening to the one I thought I knew so well:
And more than anything- it was the SADNESS. I thought I was through this, I thought I was ok, I thought I was strong.
Finally, when it was all done, like a drowned rat, I climbed out of it, onto the shore, and quite beautifully fell into the acceptance that I get to call my husband.
We were both scared and sad, overwhelmed and heavy.
This again? Really?
Just ride the wave, rather than resist it.
That’s what was written on the back of the beautiful soul standing next to me in yoga class this morning. It was an effort to get there today. Needless to say, I’m worn out, I’m empty, even though it’s all done.
Just ride the wave. Don’t resist it.
With each painful pose, my eyes drifted to the back of her shirt and as I closed them, to block out anything and everything, I could see how much resisting I have been doing, and how the end result of fighting something with which I have zero control over is always going to leave me gasping, exhausted, fearful and without much hope for reprieve.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just let go- let it take me where it needs to take me, do what it needs to do FOR ME? Nothing happens to us, only for us.
This is hard too.
Many years ago, in one of my past lives, at a table in little Mexican joint somewhere in Tucson, I found myself sharing margaritas and tacos with a dear friend who I love so very deeply. The salt in our drinks was due to the steady flow of tears, as she shared the experience of losing her daughter too early and so painfully, she shared with me the wisdom of the waves.
Though her pain was unending, she sagely managed to explain that we can never escape it, these waves. They will be there, slapping us down, until we give in, surrendering to the movement of its rhythm, allowing it to carry us to whatever realm it sees fit. The sea of life will have its way- always has and always will. But surviving it requires full surrender.
Surrender of control, the letting go of our pride and expectations, and most importantly, the requirement that we should be exempt from any pain.
The waves are life’s gift to us- teaching us of our ability to stay afloat, no matter what type of storm we are weathering. It’s all necessary, it’s all normal, it’s all we have sometimes.
All we can do is stay calm, breathe in, and breathe out. Stop resisting, and just ride the wave.
The rain is falling- falling in hard and fast, chilling sheets that are beating against the living room window. I turn the lights on, as it has suddenly grown so dark in the house. A little better, but still dimmer than it should be. I look up to the far left corner and see the bulb that I meant to change weeks ago, still burned out. Looking around, in the half light, I notice papers piled on top of the desk, toys strewn across the coffee table, toys tumbling out of bins all across the floor. No matter how hard I try, regardless of how little I do in the outside world, I can never keep up with it all.
The little one comes in with her cup of juice. ‘Do yoga with me, Mama.’
She doesn’t ask. She demands, as only a two year old can.
A heavy sigh filled with the temptation to get back to breakfast dishes, laundry, emails- REAL WORK- leaves my lips.
‘Do yoga with me, Mama.’ Again, the demand, quieter this time, waiting for disappointment, perhaps.
Work and work. It can wait, forever, if it has to.
We stretch, we touch our toes, it feels good to lie on the floor and giggle with this little being that is so free from schedule, duties and time. How I must learn from her. I close my eyes and breathe. How I’ve dreamed of these moments, visualized them into existence. How many of them do I allow to pass me by because the world tells me there are other things that are so much more worth doing?
A familiar song begins to play, ‘It’s my favorite…’
She says this about all of them, but I can’t help but take her at her word. I scoop her up, and bury my nose and lips into that soft space beneath her ear, and kiss her tiny, perfect neck. In the shadow of the burned out light, amongst debris of childrearing and cleaning failures, we twirl, we swing, we laugh, we sing.
And I begin to cry. Slowly, tears escape from the corners of my eyes and turn into muffled sobs as we fumble around the furniture, tripping over a puzzle, a book, a dinosaur or two.
“I survived for this” I whisper it- out into the atmosphere, to her. She doesn’t understand, that for this very moment, just to share the ordinary magic between the two of us, this life altering experience of dancing, as only the two of us can, for THIS, I fought my way out of hell and back again and back again- tripping, face down onto the edge of an abyss of darkness that threatened to swallow me up, only to have spit me out into the utter confusing bliss of normality…
It’s for this, that I have survived.
When despair wanted to take me, conjuring up love for these little beings that were not even known, drenched me in light, feeding the will of survival, altering the belief that there was nothing worth living for, because deep in my knowing, somehow, I could feel them calling to me, while out there, for all those days and nights. As I walked to what I was sure was the end of it all, they traveled beside me, each taking a hand, assuring me that the best was yet to come, whether on this side or the other, I just could not know then.
But I sure as hell know it now.
This. This is why I made it.
For the everyday task of swinging my legs over the side of the bed to answer the calls of sick children. For the generous gift of preparing nourishment for the little mouths that have so shifted my world and made me into the only thing I was meant to become.
A better version of myself- a mere memory of who I once was. One who does not have the time or the energy to fret over the meaningless, one who must stop over and over again, trying to finish the most menial of tasks, only to, and quite literally for nothing more, and nothing less, than to stop and smell the roses.
I survived for this. Not for any other reason, than to do the everyday. To forge through the curtain of the mundane, so that on the other side I could experience the very purest form of joy.
Living Life Now.
For the past five years, I have carried around my survival as if it were a weight, a responsibility.
Call it survivor’s guilt, maybe it truly is shame-I’m not the only one- I believe we all carry our own version of it. But, when it has felt like too much to carry, I always go back to the truth that my experiences are like a smooth stone I carry around in my pocket- it will always be there- until I figure out where to put it, how best to lay it down, I imagine I will wander looking for that sacred space for a while yet, however, the weight of it never changes, although my ability to carry it around- my thoughts and beliefs about the weight of it- does. As I grow stronger from hauling it around with me, I see it for what it really is. Not something to be ashamed of, or have to prove it’s what I am always about, but really, it’s the deepest form of GRACE, that has blessed me with the opportunity to understand the work that has enabled me to grow strong enough to bear it, all while allowing me to get back on my own two feet again. And what’s more, because it takes time to build stamina and strength- and because it takes practice and is slow in its natural process, this has forced me to answer the call of the experience of a life of slow and deliberate normalcy.
This is the lesson in my survival. Had I not been tried, I would most likely never have slowed down.
And oh, the life I would have missed. Dare I say it was all worth it- for the chance to experience this?
Somehow, in the midst of books and writing and speaking and child growing and work and more work- I had ALMOST forgotten all of it- this truth that is so foundational, so fundamental.
And as for these feet that have carried me to the ends of the earth and back, that have born the weight of my world upon them, that shook with fear as I was walking into the unknown, following strangers and chasing after stars….these feet are now dancing the dance of survival- the dance of those who have and will continue to survive.
They are dancing barefoot in the garden as we pick violets and chickweed for our morning tea. They are dancing in the kitchen as I prepare (yet another) meal for hungry tummies and singing to me their songs of need.
They are dancing and rejoicing in the memories that are ever present but rarely painful because of that beautiful, ever healing gift of time.
It’s all just a blip in this thing we call life.
And for those of us who are lucky enough to be living it, how glorious it is, and forever more will be.
From the angle at which I am lying in my bed, I’m able to peek out at the cherry tree that has just begun to bud. It’s cold outside, and completely perfect. I think, yes, this is Spring. The deep burgundy, backed by the early morning sky makes for a color combination that leaves me feeling grateful. These are details that should never be missed- a tragedy if they are ever ignored.
Birds are chirping; tiny heads tilting to the sun, flitting along on the possibility of bountiful branches, they get closer to our own perch. My four year old lifts the window as to get a closer look. The room fills with freezing air- we laugh as we try to still our breathing so that we can hear a woodpecker working away his morning.
I stare into his deep brown eyes, limitless, so full of wonder, at such a simple thing. I sigh.
How did I get here?
It’s getting colder and we can see our breath. We watch a robin, and a cardinal- he runs off to put his coat and shoes on. I curl deeper, down into the comfort of my bed, welcoming in the first morning air, my ears are open to the chorus that surrounds me. A feeling of blissful contentment flows over. A cry fills the air- his sister is up. It’s time to start the day. And surprisingly, it is all SO very good.
It is shocking, indeed, how good it is.
How did I get HERE?
I have asked this many times- shouting out to the Universe in a mix of raw emotion and confusion. Sometimes railing and shaking my fists in anger at the felt injustice of it all. At 24, already one failed marriage under my belt, and another life needing to begin. Heartbroken and disillusioned, I look at my young, sad self in the mirror, eyes of confusion and disbelief unblinking, stare back at me. I did everything ‘right.’ I’m a ‘good girl.’ I’m only 24, how could he leave? How did I get here?
Standing before my first collection of students in Kenya, 25 unblinking faces stare back at me-WAITING- expecting something wonderfully brilliant. I don’t know where to begin. Feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, thousands of miles from home, swatting flies and sweating bullets, I look around in wonder, and then out the window-it’s so green-and my heart is overfilled, I can hardly contain it. I believe it is joy- I look out my window into the endless green and murmur to myself, ‘How did I get here?’
Staring at my mother’s peaceful body as I press a bright yellow sunflower into her lifeless hand. Whispering to her the words of my childhood, you are my sunshine…my only sunshine….I lay my lips against her brow for the very last time while I am in this body, for she has already left hers. As my brother and sister kiss their mother good-bye, I take them into my arms, knowing that I am all at once, the oldest, and again, therefore the surrogate mother for them now. I silently weep as we place her gently into the ground. I weep for her, I weep for me, for everyone who has lost someone, or who inevitably will. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not now, not yet. How on Earth did we get here? The soul drenching grief feels too heavy to carry home.
Crouching behind a thorn bush, choking down panic and sobs, trying not to let them hear me. Because if they do, I will be punished. Sun is harsh and unforgiving on my back, sweat mingles with dirt, so much dirt, and rolls down my face. How did I get here? How did I get here? HOW DID I GET HERE? The tortured chant follows me back to my mat, where I take my place for the next 12 hours, seated in one spot, beneath a smallish tree. I have been ‘alone’ for so long, I can barely speak; and really, what is there to say anyway?
If I make it through this and go on to have a normal life, what on Earth will I ever tell my children? How do I ever explain this?
I’m just a school teacher from the Mid-West- these things don’t happen to people like me. How did I get here?
It’s just a regular Thursday afternoon, the sun is shining in a way that makes everything feel like it is dancing. I’ve got my third cup of tea brewed and ready- as I sip, I lean against the door way and watch my two children play together in the sandbox cooperatively, for once. I look around me- I take it all in- the crumbs on the table, the crayons all over the kitchen floor, the sink full of dishes and feel that ever illusive, fleeting moment of contentment wash over me.
How did I get here?
Like a high speed train, memories bullet through my brain in snippets. Fragments of my mother in that blue cotton sundress with the little white flowers, her laughter as we munch popcorn and sing ‘Hi Ho’ together with Snow White- it’s my very first movie. My sister, drawing her boundaries, quite necessarily, by rolling an impressively straight line of masking tape down the middle of our bedroom floor. My mess is my mess she declared, changing her mind as she held my weeping and broken heart on that same bedroom floor, only a few years later.
Falling in love, running barefoot through the grass, the sound of August’s cry when he was finally HERE- the comforting whispers of the doctor, as I cried uncontrollably, of the fear mixed with life that had sprung up amidst so much pain-so much uncertainty. It’s all ok, you are so alright- you made it here. Finally.
And so, it is in those recollections, that I see how I got here.
We get where we are going by wading through disappointment and seas of unending struggle and unexpected pain- We get where we are going by surviving the deluge of rivers filled with epic sorrow and floating on the life preserver of grief-it’s a float, not a weight. We work indescribably hard, only to be disappointed, by ourselves and our own human limitations, as well as by others who were not completely honest with us or, to much to their surprise, to themselves. Likewise, we’ve soared on wings of second chances and opportunities- none of which we will ever be slightly deserving, but OH, how grateful we are for these chances, nonetheless. And because Grace still kisses the world we live in, we have all the support we will ever need giving us the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to continually find the courage to get up out of bed in the morning, and know that it’s all how it should be, and that we are exactly doing what we were meant for all along.
We have been put on this Earth for the purpose of experiencing the journey, although sometimes it may feel like we are only enduring. The destination is completely unimportant in the great scheme of the Universe, because, if you haven’t noticed already, we don’t get to control any of that anyway. Life doesn’t ask for our permission. We must continue to lament on her behalf.
An opportunity comes, we don’t know why, we don’t identify it as such, but for some unknown reason, we walk through the door, and before we can blink, or even think a thought, our entire life has changed. And THAT, that is how we get here.
I saw him across a noisy dance floor room in a far-away place many life times ago. He bought me a glass of white wine and started up a conversation, a dialogue that has taken us through hell and heaven and will carry us through those places, how many times, I dare not guess.
I look out the window again- he’s hauling loads of dirt with a wheelbarrow, he looks up, because he knows I’m there, but says nothing, sees me, in the first thing in the morning light. Our four year old crashes into him, breaking our gaze, the little sister continues crying.
How did I get here? It’s a longer story than can be told, just yet, as it is still being written.
But how beautiful it feels to have finally managed it. Thus far, anyway.
To have gotten here.
Spring is here to stay, it would appear. While I’m not complaining about the unusual warmth and the budding of the trees we are experiencing here in Virginia( at the end of February, no less) it’s strange and somehow makes me feel a little melancholy. The itch I feel in my fingers, to get into the garden and start digging in the dirt, planting a small, almost invisible seed, getting up every morning, almost as excited as my kids, to check on the progress, brings with it the nostalgia of watching my mother bring home some little start of something green and somehow miraculously, grow it into beautiful, flowering life.
I guess in short, Springtime makes me miss my mom.
It wasn’t a surprise to me, when one morning a few weeks back, while I was standing in my father’s kitchen, although a space my mother never worked in, I felt her presence so very strongly that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I was preparing food for my nephew’s birthday party, and in a rare moment of quiet solitude, because it was just me and her, somewhere out there in the atmosphere- I told her how much I missed her and wish she could be with us to celebrate the day.
The moment passed as quickly as it had come, and along with it, the pang of emptiness heartache. I finished what I was doing, tugged on my rain boots, rounded up the kids, and headed out into the wide open spaces of cow pastures and fields ready to be planted. The three of us took deep cleansing breaths, all in our own time, it reminded me of a song, a song we all knew, but didn’t need to rehearse. We searched for funny shaped sticks and discussed as to whether they looked more like woodpeckers or a guns…Let’s go with woodpeckers, I urged. Mentally rolling my eyes.
We tried to hang from old dead vines and kept up our pace in hopes that we would find the cows that usually pastured in a neighboring field. We walked slow, meandered about, stopped to check out rain puddles.
It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.
We could see the cows further on down the road, and as luck would have it, their keeper was out, feeding them breakfast from bulging piles of delicious hay. We tried to walk faster- hoping to get a front row seat.
Farmer Green (Yes, this was his real name) was on the other side of the electric fence when we approached. Friendly and open, he invited my oldest in to the pasture to meet some of his beauties. They all had names, youngest to oldest; they stopped munching and stared us as if we were aliens. Auggie, hand in hand with Farmer Green, cautiously walked around to meet these magnificent mamas, and their tiny babies-one was only two days old.
One by one he introduced us to his herd; I was only half listening, as I was chasing my two year old away from the electric fence. I had just noticed her trying to put a round ball of manure and mud into her coat pocket J when my ears perked up because Farmer Green stopped reverently in front of what he referred to as his friendliest and sweetest cow. I took a second to look into her deep brown eyes as I heard him say, ‘Now this one, this one here, her name is Marilyn.’ I stopped messing with Ebba and looked at him, a little bit shocked- what were the chances? He was smiling at her, in a way I couldn’t explain- reverence, pride. But all I could think was, “Marilyn? Her name is Marilyn?”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. My mother’s name was Marilyn.
And what he said next, made me have to turn away in order to push down the tears that were inevitably to spill over. How do I explain crying in the middle of a pasture, over a cow I had just met? He put his hand out to a calf standing next to ‘Marilyn’- she came over and nuzzled him, and he just said, “And this here- well, this is Marilyn’s little girl.”
I stooped down, trying to make myself busy with whatever so I could brush away the tears.
Marilyn and her little girl- that was once me, and my mother.
While I realize that this story may not resonate with everyone, and lest you think I am comparing my mother to a cow, all I can say is that you would just have to have known my mother. This was a woman who once spent two entire months trying to find a home for a gold fish that she couldn’t keep anymore. She finally found a farm with a pond that passed her standard of humane care, and off they went, I think she may have cried on her way home from dropping them off. When an inherited bird finally reached the end of it’s life, you would have thought her best friend had died, not the bird that it had come from. And at her memorial service, a treasured friend got up to share her memories of how she had met my mother- they had been in the same grief support group. The friend had lost a family member, but my mother was there to figure out how to get over losing her dog. My mother took in every stray thing with at least one leg and a little bit of fur. We had tail-less cats, fish with no eyes, and if it had an ailment, it definitely had a home with us. We always called it, “Marilyn’s Mission of Mercy.” We teased her, but oh, how we loved her for it.
So of course, OF COURSE, she would connect with me in this way on a lazily perfect Saturday morning in the middle of a cow pasture. She knows me, and knows that I know her, and although it’s been 7 years and my life will have forever shifted because of it, I believe that if I just pay attention, just take the time to notice, she will continue to show me her presence in my life in such sweet and simple ways.
How lucky I am to have these things- these connections with her. How lucky I am to have learned this person, who for all her quirks and passions, in the living of being her truest self, has allowed me to find her time and time again- because of that.
Someday, when I’m gone, and hopefully Auggie and Ebba will be much older than I am today when that happens- but I hope that they will be out in their garden, and be in a time and space where they quietly notice and remember me for just being me- the good, the bad, the funny, and the weird. Just the way I remember my mother today.
One of the greatest things you can leave behind is the memory that you were wholly and completely yourself in this life, because those moments of connection are not only for you while you are living, but will continue to bring connection for others, long after we are gone.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. But the connection is possible, and in that, we carry on.
It’s a few days before Christmas. It’s on the brink of getting dark- I’m parked in a grocery store parking lot, both my kids are asleep in the back seat. As we wait for Erik to come out of the store with the few things we still need for Christmas dinner, I am about to doze off enveloped in the warmth of the car, when a knock on the window lurches me quickly upright. I peer through the window and see a middle aged man standing by my car, with a wad of cash in his hand- although the light is dim, I can sense a cloud of worry and stress surrounding him. I don’t know why, maybe so that we are more equal this way, I open my entire door, instead of just rolling down the window, and ask if I can help him. He’s embarrassed. A little bit desperate. He explains that his car keeps dying at every stop light. He thinks it’s the battery. He has $76 dollars and he’s pretty sure a new one will cost him $100- can I spare anything to help him?
He says he’s just trying to get home.
I have a bird’s eye view of myself sitting in another car, almost 30 years earlier- same sort of deal. Two children sleeping in the backseat, I’m manning the front- only this time, the kids are my younger sister and baby brother. It’s Christmastime, I know that- and it’s cold, I feel like it’s raining. Something has happened to the car we are in, it won’t run anymore, and we are not even remotely close to home, but there is an urgency to get there as quickly as possible, I am conscious of that, but I don’t know why.
My awareness comes back to the man standing in front of me. I remember that I have $20 in my wallet and I dig it out of my bag and hand it to him. There are tears of relief in his eyes, furthering his embarrassment. I wish there was more I could do, I say to him. He thanks me for the help and wishes me a Merry Christmas- I see him drive by a few moments later in a late model car that appears to back up his claim.
My youngest begins to stir, Erik comes out of the grocery store, and my time is not for investigating the past right now, and so I forget about it all until I have one of those rare pockets of time alone with my dad. We go for a short ride and then a walk along the Piney River; in the winter, it’s my favorite. I run a bit and then fall into pace beside him. Bundled up, we point out the woodpeckers and chat about the level of the river. We sweet talk the coon dog that has come to trot alongside us and watch him meander along, back to his home. As we lean against his truck, I relay to him the story of the man in the parking lot, and how it brought back this memory-but it’s so spotty. What happened? Where were we? Help me fill in the blanks-
It’s was New Year’s Eve, actually, he says. My mother was so very sick- she had spent Christmas in the hospital. Without going into too much detail, the culmination of losing her family as a young child, combined with the demands of her own young children, had sent her down into an indescribably deep, dark place- one of which I am still afraid to think about too much, for too long. Her brother’s family had offered to help out by keeping us kids over the Christmas vacation so my dad could have a break, but they quickly realized how overwhelming we were and called my dad a few days later asking him to come and get us. Without a question, my dad climbs into the car, drives non-stop for five hours, loads us up in minutes, without even turning the car off, and gets us the hell out of there.
He was trying to outrun a few things right then, I suspect, but the most pressing of them was a huge ice storm that was taking over the Midwest. In my mind’s memory, I can see us kids, giddy to be back with someone who loved us, singing along to Christmas carols gleefully, completely naïve to the struggle that had become my father’s life.
That’s the beauty of childhood- or what every child should be allowed to have.
And what a beautiful man to absorb it all, in order to let us have that.
My dad goes on to recount that, as if it weren’t enough, as we raced down icy highways cutting through Indiana corn fields, he can remember watching the dash lights of the car grow dimmer and dimmer as the odometer hit 100,000 miles. He knew what was happening. The alternator was going out. We coasted to a stop some 30 miles down the road, ending up on the edge of an industrial town along the Ohio River.
He says he just couldn’t believe it, and all he could think was: “What am I going to do?” These were the days before mobiles and GPS- there was no location app to help him find the nearest auto repair shop, or cell phone to call AAA for help. He got out of the car, to keep breathing instead of freaking out. He looked around. Off in the distance he could see what he thought was an auto parts store and so putting me, the eldest, in charge, ordered us to lock all the doors and under no circumstances were we to talk to strangers (these were the days when you could do such things) and took off running, with a prayer on his lips and an ache in his heart, for an alternator.
It’s 5:50pm on New Year’s Eve, 1991. A stressed and worried, middle aged man walks through the door- the bell, attached to signal customer entry, rings hollow. The man stands at the counter with a hand full of cash and explains his car has just died. He knows it’s the alternator, and can even replace it himself, if they have one. He’s in luck, they do. It’ll cost him $120. Problem is, he’s only got $80. What’s he going to do?
He’s got a check! It’s good, he promises. Sales clerk looks at it, shakes his head- no out of town checks accepted. His boss would kill him. The man frantically explains that he’s got three little kids waiting back in the car and the ice is coming. The clerk is sorry- but there’s not really much he can do. The man rifles through his wallet- looking nervously out the window in the direction of the car that has his life in it. He’s got an ATM card for a Cincinnati bank- would it work here, even though he’s still in Indiana? The sale’s clerk looks at his watch, then stares at the man who is peering out at him from wire rimmed glasses, nervously waiting for an answer. He lets out his breath. He thinks there’s a 5/3 Bank on the other side of town.
The clerk makes a split decision that will impact someone else stranded in a parking lot, 30 years later.
And he decides to help.
Pulling the alternator off the shelf, he closes up shop, drives my dad across town to the ATM where he’s able to get the rest of the cash, then drops him off, where, thank God, we were still locked in the stranded car, moderately happy. He manages to replace the part and get us home without any more drama worth retelling, but the details of that day were obviously etched in his memory forever.
We both came back to the Piney River, after time traveling to a place and a time, that was difficult then, and somehow, even harder now. On opposite sides of the truck, and with the sound of the running river muffling out the sound of our sniffles and tears, I was able to thank my father for his struggle that day. Had it not been for that moment- that wretched and stressful day so many years ago, I might have been more suspicious, might not have connected, might not have made the decision to help the man standing there in the grocery store parking lot those few days before Christmas.
Hearing him retell this story, and thinking of it from his perspective now as an adult, as a parent, just as a human being, makes my heart ache for the many more stories of struggle he has yet to retell. But I look at him now and see a strong and capable man who has quietly maneuvered his way through life, and taught me so much, just in the living of it all.
He has modeled the truth for me: I will struggle, day in and day out, from the moment my feet hit the floor in those early morning hours- but it’s not ever all about me. I may see it as mine, but I am understanding that the reason we struggle is also so that others may gain strength, so that those around us can become better versions of themselves, better versions of us.
We will most likely not witness the impact of our dealings on others, but it is there- it has to be, because we are all one giant web of interconnectedness- we are humanity. We are each other. And when we beg for the burden to be lifted, are we then keeping someone else for whom the effects of the struggle were meant for, from actually getting what they need?
If we view the struggle as being more than just what it seems in that moment for a solitary self, then it seems insurmountable, exhausting, and unnecessary. But if we allow the purpose of all of the life stuff to sink in, and surrender to it-because life WILL have it’s way-then I wonder how much less striving we will have to do in the first place. Maybe there will be acceptance, and while challenging and painful, hectic and heart numbing, it will be just like all the other worthy things in life- work, learning, and in the end, triumph.
Today is my dad’s 65th birthday. It’s hard to verbalize what this man, who is partly responsible for bringing me into the world, and sustaining me with his presence, perseverance and character, means to me. All I can say is thank you- Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to the struggle. I know you don’t feel like you had much choice, but your decisions made me who I am today, and for that, I am truly grateful.
If there is one thing I have learned in my short, yet struggle filled years, it’s that life doesn’t ask us for our permission about anything, however, it will always require a response.
Surrender to the struggle, my friend, because it’s more than just about you- if you let it, it will change not only your life, but could impact someone else’s. Someone standing in a grocery store parking lot, 30 years from now.