You’re Making A Mistake.
What is a “mistake” anyway? How does one measure its scope? Its impact? Its “mistakeyness,” if you will?
According to the dictionary, a “mistake” is defined as
“an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong.”
Unfortunately, as with the definition for just about every important word, its utility is somewhat limited by its reliance on other slippery terms like “judgment” or “wrong.”
“Wrong,” in particular, can be so difficult to pin down, it’s practically rendered meaningless. For example, I recently debated with a friend whether it was “wrong” to place the comma inside or outside of the end quote (e.g., “wrong”, vs. “wrong,”). I had seen it both ways in professional writing and believed that the two were interchangeable. But, my friend insisted that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to employ the comma, and sure enough, the Internet confirmed that, at least in the United States, it is “wrong” to place the comma outside of the quotation.
But, how about outside of the United States? For example, in the UK, it would be equally “wrong” to place the comma inside of the quotation. To which my friend blithely commented, “Uh, we’re in America right now.” To which my retort was, “but it could have been written by someone in the UK.” This highly scintillating debate eventually devolved into a friendly contest of grammar which lasted the course of the afternoon and into the evening, but you get my point.
“Wrong” is a highly unstable word, and as such, “mistake” is nearly impossible to define.
I spent my Christmas Eve with my family. We descended upon my aunt’s home in Hoffman Estates for galbi, kimchi-chigae, and cheesecake. Though I happily participated in the consumption of all my favorite foods on one plate, I felt (and looked) completely drained. My aunt came over to me in her apron and slipped her arms around my waist. “You are so tiny, now,” she whispered into my hair. It was the first time in my life that anyone in my family sounded worried that I was getting too small.
Feeling the weight of her arms on my hips, I remembered the last time she held me that way.
Several years ago, when I had to put down my first dog, I spent an entire week quarantined in my room. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t talk. Instead, I spent hours cataloguing all the “mistakes” that led up to my poor Hemingway’s premature death, and to this day, I can barely say his name out loud without a watershed of guilt. I don’t remember much from that week beyond the small red teddy bear—the one Hemingway loved to chew on—pressed against my nose, just so that I could continue to smell the memory of him. Though nearly everyone left me alone, at some point, my aunt quietly opened the door to my room. I stood up and turned my back to her to look at the AC unit in my window so that she wouldn’t see my tears. She crept up behind me—without a word—and wrapped her arms around my waist. She let me crumble into her and propped me up with her forearms, again, without a word.
She wouldn’t let go.
She leaned her head into the back of my neck and it was at that moment that I recalled that my aunt once had to bury a child. When I was still a little girl, she had miscarried her second baby—something that I did not find out until my mother mentioned it in passing long after the fact. Feeling my Eemo’s heart beating against mine, it was like all the pain she had buried, all the “mistakes” she’d secretly examined beyond recognition, soaked straight into my ribcage by the force of sheer gravity.
She took my breath away.
When my mother arrived at my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve, she brought in with her a handful of fat Christmas cards, the chill night air, and the smell of some nameless lotion that will forever be attached to “Omma.” She saw me sitting alone on the couch in the den and immediately spread her arms for a hug. “How is my daughter?” she queried, before settling her cool hands on my shoulders. “I’m ok,” I whispered. She took her two fingers, then, and tweaked the tip of my nose—something she used to do all the time when I was a toddler, and something she hadn’t done in decades. I do not think my mother could possibly have known how close my shoulders came to collapsing in that moment, how very nearly my mouth unraveled into a sob.
My mother always tells the best stories. One of my favorites is about the time she nearly killed me.
I was two years old and she took me grocery shopping on a rainy day. When we finally got back to our apartment, I was fussy and wet, so she put me down for a nap on the living room couch. I fell sound asleep in moments. A few hours later, my mother noticed I had a fever. In lieu of panicking, she called the pediatrician’s office and made an appointment for the following day. My grandmother, her mother (who was living with us at that time), insisted that my mother take me to the hospital immediately. Patiently, my mom, the American nurse, explained to her immigrant mother, “You can’t do that here in America, Mom. You have to make an appointment. Besides, it’s just a fever. She probably just caught the flu.” My grandmother clicked her tongue and warned,
“You’re making a mistake.
If you don’t take that child to the hospital right now, she will die.”
Exasperated, my mother swaddled me up in my winter coat and carried me over to the emergency room of the nearby hospital, careful not to wake me.
It turns out that my “nap” was actually a coma. My fever was not the flu, but meningitis. Had my mother waited a few hours, much less an entire day, I would have either died or gone blind and deaf for the rest of my life.
My mother still recounts that the happiest moment of her life was when I finally woke up from my coma and uttered one word:
Of course, it would be remiss of me to tell the story of how my mother almost killed me without telling the one about how my grandmother nearly killed her.
It was during the War. Like a scene out of some Amy Tan movie, my grandmother singlehandedly shepherded her children out of North Korea. My mother was not yet ten years old when she and her sisters fled the smoke and rubble of their home for the “safety” of an unmarked path to a non-communist state. With the threat of rape and god only knows what else on all sides, and the crippling taste of hunger tattooed on her children’s tongues, my grandmother decided that the best thing she could do for my mother was to drown her in the river they had been following for the past several days.
I remember my grandmother like most people remember their grandmothers. She was cuddly. She loved to laugh—she’d throw her head back and cackle until no sound came out of her mouth. She planted rows of bright yellow corn and green chili peppers in our backyard. The night before she died, she gripped my fingers like an infant and wouldn’t let go.
My grandmother was not a murderer.
It is impossible for me to quantify the variables that ultimately led to her decision to commit filicide. I cannot imagine the agony of fleeing the war only to watch her own children succumb to starvation.
Thankfully, I’m here today to tell you this story because, at some point, a couple of American GIs placed the following English words, along with a Hershey bar, into my grandmother’s small, desperate hands:
“You’re making a mistake!”
They saved my mother’s life.
It seems I’ve landed on a broken record — I’ve been repeating the same four words to myself at every turn, whether it comes to eating (or not eating), going for a run, or sending a text. Second guessing is a brand of torture that I have perfected over a lifetime of obsessive introspection and excessively long showers.
Each morning, before I’ve even opened my eyes, an insidiously familiar weight eases onto my chest like a coiled snake. It hisses, “You’ve made a mistake. You’ve made so many mistakes. And you continue to make them. And because of all those mistakes, I’m going to sit here on your chest and never ever let you be as happy as you could have been.” My eyes flutter open and I look out the window. It is always dark, with the sunrise at least a few hours into the future.
Regret threatens to bury me in a type of intellectual and mental paralysis to which I didn’t even know I was susceptible. Were it not for the allure of the horizon, sometimes, I’m not sure I would even roll out of bed at all. In my lit theory class in college, we spent about a week discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, how the hallmark of insanity was the mind’s desperate struggle to rewrite the past by forcing the subject to relive the scene that caused the trauma over and over again. It’s kind of like watching the Titanic — every time you get to that scene when the ship’s about to hit the iceberg, you say to yourself, “Maybe this time, they’ll make it and the boat won’t sink and Leonardo DiCaprio won’t turn into a human popsicle.”
I am lucky to live where I live. I am lucky to have found the joy of running when I did. It forces me to step out of the circle that threatens to ensnare me every morning. But, I still feel as though, eventually, the snake sitting on my chest will uncoil and sink its fangs into me. Then, I will be forced to answer its repeated accusation:
“You’ve made a stupid and costly mistake.”
Here’s the thing, though:
Mistakes almost always give birth to regret,
but the existence of regret is not per se proof of a mistake.
I have picked through the collection of alleged “wrongs” that have piled up like a carcass of bones. I have weighed them, handled them until they’ve lost their shape and meaning. I have stared out at the Lake from the exact same chair I am sitting in right now, every night, and I have counted all eleven lamps lighting the pier like soft beacons of forgiveness.
But… I have determined that however much I regret my current situation, I am still the same girl who falls in love because she sees all the things in you that other people can’t:
Not your mistakes, but your capacity to overcome them.
I found it in a place I never expected—not in some bar in Lincoln Park, not at some work function full of suits, not on a disastrously blind date at Nomi.
Not even on OkCupid.
I found it, right here, in the heart I inherited from a kang and a pair of smelly running shoes.
There’s no mistake in that.