Wednesday, December 3, 2014
I’m a couple of days behind in my Reverb posts, so I’m combining two prompts:
What do you know for certain, right now?
It’s all too easy to put off loving where we are until everything is perfect. What can you love about where you are now?
Although I signed up to participate in this year’s “Reverb,” I had decided yesterday afternoon that I wasn’t going to do it. Too many other writing projects to finish. But I continued to read Kat McNally’s writing prompts, and her first one, about certainty, stayed with me. This past year has reminded me, lest I become too complacent, that certainty is a shaky platform, a temporary state. I’ve watched seemingly stable marriages crumble. I’ve read Facebook tales of lost jobs and minimal opportunities. And I watched my sister-in-law find love after a difficult divorce only to find grief again when her partner, an avid triathlete, died of cancer within a few short months of his diagnosis.
This past Sunday’s New York Times featured a story about a woman, a wife and mother, who had lost her family, her home, and ultimately, her freedom, to heroin addiction. The most startling element of her story was the rapidity of her decline. Okay, yes, she had “dabbled” in cocaine for a few years, and this became a source of strife between her and her husband. That can’t be ignored. But the time between her first experience with heroin and her arrest was four months. Four short months. In those months, her husband and family moved out of their suburban condo. A dealer and his teenaged son moved in. So did several other addicts. In four months, the woman went from a garrulous, if somewhat wild, mother and wife to a disheveled, gaunt, stuttering, barely recognizable version of herself.
Speaking from Riker’s Island, the woman said that her time in jail had made her clean, healthy. I won’t go back, she said, because “I don’t want to end up in a hotel room with a needle in my arm.”
Up to this point, I had felt angry with this woman. She was selfish, letting heroin take over her life that way. Her daughter had shown up to her house on Mother’s Day to find her mother high, unkempt, unable to invite her in. When the daughter left, frustrated and upset, the mother said she felt “relief.”
But the last line brought me (back) to a place of empathy. My brother Michael left the world that way: in a hotel room, with a needle in his arm. It took ten days for the cops to get a hold of my parents. It wasn’t an urgent matter. Obviously. After all, he was just another junkie.
Like the woman in the New York Times article, Michael had caused his family a lot of angst, anger, and frustration. His addiction made him selfish. He stole. He lied. He alienated us. But in between, when he tried, with the help of my parents, to get clean, he loved. He worked. And, in his moments of clarity and remorse, he loathed his other self. So, in spite of our anger, we continued to love him back, because somewhere underneath the addiction and the thieving and conniving was the soul of a genuine, thoughtful and funny man. Our brother. Their son.
When the woman in the article was arrested, her neighbors applauded as the police brought her out in handcuffs and stuffed her into the squad car. “I wasn’t angry with them,” she said in her interview. “I was ashamed.” I thought back to my brother’s self-loathing. My sister once confessed that she found a piece of paper on which he had scribbled, “Monday sucks, Tuesday sucks, Wednesday sucks . . . I suck.” This, and a letter he sent me from jail in which he apologized for “only thinking about myself,” made us realize that our Mike was still in there, battling. Always battling. And ashamed.
But how did I get to the writing prompt above to this place? Uncertainty. When Mike died, I was nine months pregnant with Dylan. Preoccupied with my unborn, and then newborn, child, it took me a long time to process Mike’s downfall, and my subsequent grief. But what I remember about the days and weeks following Dylan’s birth was an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, and even inability: holding Dylan, I realized, with utter certainty, that no amount of love bestowed upon this tiny creature, for whom I felt affection more powerful than anything I had ever experienced, could ensure that he wouldn’t end up in the same place as my brother.
For much of my life, I have let uncertainty overpower my sense of security. If I found myself feeling complacent, I would reprimand myself, or worry that things were going “too well,” as if I was somehow unworthy of good fortune. A couple of years of therapy and a strong marriage have helped me move past this, but self-doubt still exists. When Dylan had sleep issues as a baby and toddler, I blamed myself for having let him “cry it out.” When Lexi had colic, I blamed myself for working too much during my pregnancy. I know most, if not all, parents experience this irrational guilt. We have far less control over our children’s lives than we like to believe as we hover over them during the elementary school years, questioning teachers’ methods, pleading for coaches and authority figures to recognize and understand our children’s sensitive souls. We work tirelessly to shape them into the adults we’ve dreamed they would become, and to a certain extent, our parenting determines their values. But if I know anything for certain, I know that my influence is far from the only influence.
Which brings me (via a very meandering path, I know) to the second prompt: loving where I am right now. As humans, we can know for certain that we will experience tragedy or disappointment at some point: the death of a loved one, a failed friendship, a job eliminated, debilitating illness or injury. But we can’t know for certain that we will experience great love, nor can we know that our lives will even be “just okay,” let alone perfect.
In No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we should train ourselves from a young age to accept death as part of life. We often shelter our children from the idea of death because we fear a loss of innocence, or perhaps we fear that introducing the idea of death will bring our children somehow closer to that state, a thought that sends almost any parent into an anxiety-inducing state of dread. But I agree with the Buddhist teacher: while we should respect death and try to avoid it, we shouldn’t live in its shadow.
Nor should we ignore great love, or even ordinary joy, for that matter. I can say for certain that I have loved deeply, and this is a certainty I can fold up and tuck away and maybe unfold later, when I’m sulking over how few stories I have published, or my ineptitude at crafts or the ebb tides in my relationships. But while deep love is a gift to be stored and polished, we shouldn’t live in its shadow, either. Sometimes perfection is in the ordinary, even if we often wait too long to realize this. It’s in those moments when the kids are so involved in building Lego structures that they’re not even thinking about arguing over whose turn it is to use that Darth Vader figure. Or in the lasagna that you didn’t burn. Or the first sip of red wine at the end of a long week.
I hope the woman in the article finds her way back to the ordinary. I have heard from former addicts that heroin brings a high that is unrivaled, which is why so few users survive its spell. Heroin brings a state of bliss, but one that is, obviously, fleeting. Many of us seek that bliss, too, in other places—electronics, cars, affairs, a big house. We live believing that we are defined by voids, that we are in a constant state of imperfection, and so we strive to fill ourselves and our homes.
Uncertainty and unpredictability practically define parenthood. I’m a much more confident mother than I was when I held Dylan for the first time after bringing him home, wondering if I could even keep him alive, let alone keep him from harm. Admittedly, I still worry about “damaging” my children, ruining their self-esteem, increasing their stress levels by harping on them too much. But today’s prompt has been a necessary reminder: don’t wait too long to love where you are.