The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been. -Madeleine L’Engle
Never had I been so lucky. Not when I got to travel to Australia and Canada to work, not when I got married on the beach the first time, nor the second time. Not when a job brought me to Destin, Florida, to live alongside white sands, turquoise water and diving pelicans. I had never been so blessed as this! Love was bubbling up in me from a place I never knew existed, and it felt smooth like a polished stone; it looked like the diamond light reflected through many a colored glass. It whispered to me like the wind and I wanted to sing! My fifty-year-old mother had bled to death in my arms less than a year before, and in my dreams and hopes and wishes and pleadings, I needed to fill the hole she left, or I would die. And here in my arms, peaceful in her sleep, my new baby filled me up with magic.
There are many stories to represent the first eighteen years of motherhood. Stories of love, worry, fear, hurt, joy, heartache, divorce, loss, single motherhood, friendship, and more joy. In those eighteen years while my baby grew into a young woman, the child who was me matured, with little realization of it, until the day my lucky blessing left home and I looked around at the world I had built for myself. The world that hopefully would fill up my empty spaces in my child’s absence.
Age is a funny thing. Some old habits are shed like a favorite Goodwill blouse, thankfully. Others lay dormant. Oh you think those old habits and silly emotions gone—you’ve outgrown them— but then something feels slightly off, then a bit familiar, and you try pointing at it from your new, mature vantage, then you try holding it down with your finger. Oh, yeah that feeling, what are YOU doing here?
At fourteen, I was coiled onto my twin bed mashing a pillow over my face. I had desperately shoved a beach towel under the crack of my wood-splintered bedroom door, the door that I blocked with a chair each night to keep my stepdad out. My mom pushed the door open, kicked away the towel, and was pulling at the pillow into which I tried to escape, “Marisa, what’s wrong with you?”
“The smell!” I cried through the pillow, curling tighter into myself, slapping away her hands as if they were dive-bombing wasps. The air in our house smelled like rotting vomit. The mysterious odor had begun the weekend before, faint at first, spying on me behind the usual smells of over flowing ash trays, red Maui dirt and tomcat piss. I hadn’t smelled it at school that week, and I got home late in the afternoons and went right to my room to do homework, so I hadn’t thought much about the mysterious new odor in our house full of so many unpleasant odors. But on this weekend, the pungent scent of rotting vomit assaulted my nostrils like the smell of death and I was gagging on it. I couldn’t even roust myself from my bed to dash through the house to escape outside. The vomit smell had me jailed in my room.
There is plenty of metaphor here, unclear to me at the time and obvious now, especially after my therapist, once I told her the story, said of course I’d been depressed, and the doctor should not have prescribed valium, and that they did not know how to treat teen depression back then.
My grown-up home is very comfortable. I don’t want for anything material. I am proud and probably give off that I’m accustomed to such a life when, in fact it was a battle with the past to get here from the dregs of poverty and ignorance. But the human heart is fickle and there is always want for more: fame, endless travel, more human communication and recognition, a beach house with an outdoor shower. The world is so much smaller now that I’m older, and no longer contains the endless sky of opportunity it once did. Paths have been chosen, each one cancelling out the possibilities of other paths. I will never be a famous chef, nor a famous writer. I may not ever become an expat and speak fluent Spanish. These dreams have faded, the loss of them mitigated however, by the love of family and friends.
When my daughter left home, I wrapped myself in the comfort of my third—and best—husband and the camaraderie of friends. Routine is my salvation— work, conversation, love, crime shows and cuddling—these things keep me from looking into the empty spaces. But then a good friend of mine died, and the blanket of iron threads I had woven around my life blew open.
My routine disrupted.
All the emotions I have held in check rush in through fresh cracks.
I am that girl again mashing the pillow over my face.
My daughter was diagnosed with depression in middle school. I thought lightly of it at the time, recognizing that divorce and life could get to any well-adjusted kid. But it has pursued her into adulthood and I have accepted this fact of misaligned chemicals in the brain. Of course thinking of her now, I want to drug myself for a long plane ride to Malaysia, where she has been for a year-and-a-half. I want to grab her by the arm, shove her onto the waiting plane and bring her home. I want to tell her, “I need a grand kid, damn it, and it’s your job to give me one. And it’s your job to be near me because I gave birth to you when I needed you so badly after my mom died, and I still need you. And I can’t go into Target without crying and I can’t go into Hot Topic without crying, or Starbucks for that matter. It’s Christmas! God damn it and I can’t even shop at Journey’s or Trader Joes for you!”
Maybe her depression genes come from me. Her dark moods were labeled and treated. Mine were ignored, especially by me, as I spent my childhood huddled into myself, fearful, stuttering, ignoring most of what was around me except what made me insecure. Later, I had menstrual cycles to blame, those wild swings of hormones pulling me into unwanted corners. Then it was an alcoholic husband and my long-time denial of his love for the bottle.
So I have spent my life attempting to fill the empty spaces out of self-preservation. First it was drugs, alcohol, travel. Then it was parenting and work-a-holism. Now it’s writing, reading, growing orchids, (you should see them!) more work, and thankfully, love. Always the over-achiever, always swiftly-moving, to avoid looking into the empty spaces.
But I am afraid the empty spaces are looking at me. Their searing gaze draws me into their doom of hopelessness, and I feel all over again the loss of my mom at such a young age and wonder still, why she had to die so violently. I feel my daughter’s absence, and those sweet years with her—my safety ropes—fraying along the edge of the mountain. I feel the loss of my friend, how I’ll never drink a beer with him again and how I feel responsible now for his wayward widow. I only can text my daughter. I cannot laugh with my friend. I cannot talk to my mom.
I never believed the love of a man could save me from myself. The stuff of fairly tales, right? I imagine a single me, unmoored and sad, probably on Prozac, looking for the corner bar to wallow inside, possibly on that plane to Malaysia to disrupt my daughter’s life, putting my own needs in front of hers. These are frightening thoughts, and I realize how lucky I am to have such a man by my side: caring, sweet, listening to my woes while stroking my hair. I marvel at how I stumbled into his path, life is funny like that; the girl with the pillow over her face learned to control life the best she could, but some things cannot be controlled, this lesson, finally learned.
“Feel the sadness.” I stopped going to therapy years ago but the lessons have stayed with me. I can hear Linda now, coaching me during our angst-filled pre-and post-divorce sessions. The control-freak me, paving over the empty spaces. Turning away from the pain until it manifested into other things: fear, self-loathing, stomach cramps. The younger me was a stuttering, cold, cardboard cut-out of a person, hiding from life like I’d hid from the vomit-smell so many years ago. Now, back at an emotional crossroads, I work to heed her advice. Feel the sadness, oh goody.
Fear is a sneaky emotion. Like a parasite it attaches to sadness and hitches a ride, and the combination of the two can be lethal. It can ride in on an external event, hook up with sadness and blindside you. My sadness was hanging around mostly in the background, until the morning of November ninth, when I awoke to the notion of a very different world ahead. When I awoke to a different humanity. When there was shock and awe galloping around my heart and mind. I wanted to cut and run! There I was, curled into myself on my designer couch, missing my mom and my daughter and my friend, afraid I was about to lose everything. Afraid that the world was so much out of my control, I would be sad forever. Forget trying to invest what little was left of my nest egg from the last Republication administration. Take my money and go. Be an expat. Speak Spanish after all.
But there is my love, my friends, (my orchids), and my daughter will come home some day.
Sigh. Age has seasoned me. I think more clearly now. I can think past the demolition derby of sadness and fear. No vomit smell need manifest; I can always go outside and smell my orchids.