My sister, Lauren, flew to California for my birthday. While planning our week together she asked if I wanted to spend the night at my grandma’s the night before my birthday.
I said “Well, if I can’t wake up with mom on my birthday, I want to wake up with grandma.”
And then I burst into tears. “I just miss her”, I whispered between sobs.
It was unexpected and completely out of nowhere, especially considering I’ve been in a good place with my life — and grief.
Today I turn 27, and the scale tipped a little bit closer to 30. Aside from wondering “Since when did I become an adult!?” it also has me thinking about the breadth of my life — what have I accomplished? Where am I heading? What is worth working for?
In those moments it’s easy for me to get caught up in the fact that I don’t have a successful career — or any career — and that I don’t have a home. In those moments it’s easy for me to fall prey to the thoughts of others — that I somehow am doing life wrong, as if there is a blueprint I missed.
I sometimes worry about my future. So often I liken myself to a moth rather than a butterfly: my life is less of a metamorphosis from cocoon to butterfly and is more of a hapless, fluttering mothy creature looking for the light, landing awhile, and continuing on in search of better light. I wonder if I’ll ever be satisfied with the light I find.
It’s in those moments I remind myself that the lie of “one life fits all” is just that — a fucking lie. I’ve lived life by my standards and desires (some would say to a fault), and I have learned so, so much along the way:
I have gone to the absolute depths of despair, so waterlogged with grief I wondered if I would ever surface. There were many days — many years — where I questioned if I would even make it to 27. Not because I would take my life, but because depression would take my will to live. I may have a heartbeat, sure, but I feared that by this age I would be a shell of a human, haunted by the vibrant person I once once.
I’ve traveled the world, 26 countries. I’ve seen the northern lights in Iceland; while they danced before me, I felt the dangerous and treasonous thought that maybe, some day, I could be happy in world where my Mother was not. I’ve sobbed in the cafe in the Musee d’Orsay much to the alarm of surrounding strangers and in the streets of Paris, the same places where my mom, twin, and I explored just a few years earlier. I’ve felt what it’s like to have nothing and no one — once while traveling from Denmark to France I checked my bank account before my bus ride to the airport to see that I had $20 left in my bank and another week before payday. I ate apples, cucumber, olives and cold gazpacho. (I’m not the best with money, I’m aware. Conservative folks might think of me as a hedonist, but I watched my mom stress over money and her retirement her whole life. And then I watched her never get to enjoy it). While traveling in northern Thailand I was so sick from eating bad chicken that I lost 30lbs in 3 weeks and went blind for 15 minutes on the side of the road in a country where I didn’t speak the language. A few days later, on a night train to Bangkok I discovered cockroaches all over my bed. I didn’t even care.
It’s been four and a half years since my mom died and in the moments just before sleep I can still remember what it was like to lay my head on her chest. I can still remember the smell of her hair and hear her uproarious laugh. I think about her daily. I don’t think there will ever be a day when I don’t.
I’ve stood across from the man that killed my mother multiple times and his lawyer who tried convincing the judge that my family fabricated the most damning evidence against his client; hate doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I have for them both. I’ve seen global poverty and have wondered silently to myself why the world doesn’t have more compassion and forgiveness for each other. The irony of those two sentences is not beyond me.
I watched my family fall apart. So many people assume that the last few years have been hard because my mom died. Yes, that’s partly it. But more than that, the most painful things of the last several years are the things I keep off social media and out of the public eye: that when my mom lost her physical body, I lost my dad, too. The heart of the former no longer beats and the heart of the latter does, but the parents I knew for the first twenty-two years of my life are gone.
In the same 24 hour-span I’ve yelled at my dad for being a fucking asshole and I’ve held him as he drunkenly stumbled towards the roaring North Sea in Denmark, collapsing on the sand in tears saying, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I’ve wondered countless times about what will happen when my dad becomes so old that he needs my care. Do I drop my vow to myself that I owe him nothing? Or do I let the tenderness I have for the man he used to be — the man who sometimes shines through the cracks of the broken man he is today and the man who remains one of my biggest cheerleaders, constantly reminding me to “Keep doing cool shit” — in and care for him?
This is our weird and complicated relationship: he is someone I desperately love, often pity, and sometimes hate.
With each passing birthday I think less of my current age and more of how I’m getting closer to 44 — the age where I will have lived as many years with my mom as I have without.
What will I remember about her? Will I have kids? How do I begin to even tell them about their grandma? How do I tell them just how much she wanted to know them, meet them, play with them, spoil them, and love them, long before I even knew if I wanted them? Just the thought of it brings a lump the size of a golf ball to the back of my throat and my nose begins to run and tears flow easily. It’s a feeling of not wanting to die but not feeling strong enough to live to 44.
I get jealous of young 20-somethings. I wonder what my life would have looked like if I weren’t left to pick up broken pieces of a life that wanted to stay broken. Would I be in law school? Would I have graduated by now? Along the same vein, I have a hard time hearing of people’s conflicts with their mothers. “If they only knew how much time they don’t have left,” I think to myself.
I’ve learned that success isn’t measured by the amount of money you make or the the jobs you have, but how you make people feel.
Social media doesn’t tell me if you visit your grandparents, if you call your mom, if you acknowledge people who appear to live without a proper home, or how you treat people who can do absolutely nothing for you. Some of the kindest people I know are the people whose names will never be listed in a history book, or in Forbes 30 under 30. My mom had an uncanny ability to make people, even strangers, feel as though they mattered and were worthy of love. I can only hope I’ve carried on an ounce of that.
I’ve learned you can profess a lot of thoughts and ideas on how one should live, but those thoughts are fruitless if you don’t actually live by them:
One recent evening I was walking through the Mission District of SF towards an event with some leftovers in hand.
A woman yelled to me just as I passed, “Hey!”
I turned. Her tongue was stuck between her teeth, her hair was a mess and she was wearing a several-sizes-too-big forest green peacoat that was tattered and dirty. Her words were incomprehensible.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money” I said.
“Oh! You want my burrito? You can have it.”
Frustrated, she gathered her energy to try again. Tongue sticking out she said “No. Can…I… have… a… hug?”
I froze. It seemed like it took hours for me to decide when, in reality, it was just a split second. I didn’t want to do it, but I did. I hugged her and gave her a smile. I turned and started walking, passing a giant dude leaning against the wall who watched the whole thing. He yelled at me, “HEY!”
I turned around sheepishly. He saw. He saw that I didn’t want to hug that woman and he was going to call me out for being a free loving hippy hypocrite.
“Yeah?” I said
He smiled slightly, kindness in his eyes: “You have a nice night.”
I turned back around and burst into tears, the weight of what happened so heavy.
It’s strange to think that the world thinks of me as an adult. The day my mom died and my father started slowly walking out of my life, it felt like I was dropped in a dark cave and was left, hands on sharp, unforgiving walls looking for a way out. I can hear people’s voices from a distance: “Just get a job!”, “You’ll get through it!” but none of it actually helps me find the light.
I remember driving in the car with one of my aunts when I was younger and she missed her exit. It put her in a dizzying and stressful state and I remember thinking, “Why can’t she just take the next one?” So often I’ve wondered if this is how I’ve lived my life, constantly missing my exit and telling myself it’s ok because I’d get the next one. I’ve wondered where grace for myself will meet its edge.
When I was 12 my parents took my sisters and me on a cross country roadtrip. The one thing we forgot? Music. Except for a Dixie Chicks CD. We listened to it more times than any sane person would, and I was instantly drawn to their song “The Long Way Around”. I told myself at the young age of 12 it would be my life’s theme song. Now that it is, I’ve wondered more times than not if I want it that way.
I’ve questioned my decisions. I’ve watched my older sister Lauren, one of the youngest doctors in her class, become a doctor through sheer dedication. I’ve wondered what I could accomplish if I worked as hard as her. Inversely, I know she’s looked at my life and wondered what her life would look like if she merged into the slow lane a time or two.
If I end up poor and with no savings I can say that, without a doubt, I did what made me happy.
I’ve tried to honor the light and struggles in other people, to see them for who they are and where they’re at. I have friends and family who mean everything to me and I’d like to think the feeling is mutual. I’ve tried to live my life with permission — when around me, you can be you (examples of this include, but are not limited to, getting my grandma to dance to Taylor Swift in my VW van and getting friends to stay up all night because what is sleep when you’re having the time of your life?). I try to pick people up at the airport whenever possible — even if it feels out of the way — because seeing a familiar face after a long flight is one of the best feelings in the world, and I know for a fact that being the one with no one to pick you up can be one of the loneliest. I’ve learned that a smile can say more than words, that people just need someone to listen to them more than they need advice, and the only true way to drink coffee is black. I will never get tired of eggs and bacon, and hold strongly to the belief that breakfast is always the first meal of the day, even if it’s 2pm.
I’ve learned that kindness is fluid — I want to share it with others because others have shared it with me, even when I felt so undeserving of it. The times that come to mind include: the couple who let me camp with them in Moab, Utah because I couldn’t afford the $40 a night fee; the bus driver in Ireland who drove my sister and me off his bus route so we wouldn’t have to walk through below freezing temperatures; the Tuk Tuk driver in Thailand who charged me a local Thai price (unheard of when it comes to white tourists) to get me to the hospital; the man in all white who approached me in the South of France and asked if I was lost after 2 hours of searching in the heat for my Air BnB. I’ve learned that opportunities to give and receive kindness are everywhere and those moments leave you feeling more connected to each other than any amount of social media ever could. If I were to pick words for my tombstone today maybe I would choose a simple “She Lived”. Or maybe “Five More Minutes”- the phrase I’ve become infamous for in my circle of family and friends when trying to wake me up.
These are all of the things I’ve learned in my 27 years, and I’m painfully aware that oftentimes I falls short of my own teachings. But I try. And maybe that’s the secret to life? To try. Whether it’s simply getting out of bed, working on a relationship, or going after your dreams, I’d like to approach everyone with the assumption that they, too, are trying.