30 Jan 2013, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 12 Comments.
A few weeks ago I awoke one morning with a small, tight knot in my back. It had lodged itself in the valley next to my scapula, a compact mass of taut tissue that had taken up residence overnight, for no apparent reason. I tried massaging it with my fingertips, my elbow arranged in a sharp hairpin in front of my nose to reach the awkward spot on my back. I tried stretching, soaking in hot baths, and taking Ibuprofen. Not only did it not budge, it grew worse. Each time I inhaled deeply I felt the tightness in the upper-left quadrant of my back expand; each time I twisted my torso around to look out my blind spot while driving I felt a tingle of pain race up my back. After nearly two weeks I finally called my massage therapist, who was able to see me a few days later.
Lying face-down on the soft, white massage table, Sarah asked me what had happened to cause this. “I don’t know,” I said, innocently, and then launched into the story of my fainting episode and subsequent overnight hospital stay. “Well, making a dead fall like that on the kitchen floor, that’d be enough for a back to go into spasm.” As she expertly kneaded the knot and arranged her hands in different configurations on my back I told her that these things – fainting, trips to the emergency room, mysterious muscle spasms – didn’t used to happen to me like they do now. “The last two years, since Abra has been born, have been really hard on me,” I said, plainly, tears pricking the backs of my eyelids.
Face smooshed into the table, I can feel Sarah nodding and listening; massage therapists and hair stylists are alike in this way. “Have you ever considered that maybe this is just a function of growing older?” she asks. I have not. It is far too easy to attribute these things to Abra and the dramatic changes in my lifestyle that have ensued. I am in the best shape I’ve been since graduating high school, I remind myself, and quickly shake off the possibility that the natural process of aging has anything to do with it.
Later that week Maikael forwards me an op-ed piece with the alarming title You Are Going to Die, which I read with intense interest. Since my mother’s sudden death 10 years ago I find myself magnetically drawn to any story that pertains to grief and dying, especially our culture’s (often-backward) treatment of it. It’s really a piece on aging, a process that, the author astutely notes, is fundamentally characterized by a loss of control, and one that “feels grotesquely unfair,” even though it is the only reality that all of us will eventually face. I instantly flash to my late-night admission on the cardiac wing of the hospital after fainting, how I was the youngest, healthiest-looking person there, simultaneously fortified and frightened by one singular thought: You do not belong here. Unless, of course, I did. How, the following morning, I was antsy and anxious to be discharged from “a world of sick people, invisible to the rest of us,” trying to wrest control and hasten the process in any way possible, eager to pass back through the veil and reclaim my healthy status. To be seen again.
These events of the past month have made me more aware than I normally am that, as my friend, Lindsey, would say, I am approaching “the top of the Ferris wheel.” While I presume that there is still more life ahead of me than behind me (I will turn 35 this year), the ratio becomes less skewed by the day. My health and youth, once effortlessly bestowed, no longer feel like a given. There is something about having crossed the chasm from being someone’s child to being someone’s mother that has altered my perspective of what it means to grow older. Death and birth are bookends for me, as they are for all of us, though I’m not speaking of my own. My mother’s death and my daughter’s birth: these are the events that are the primary guideposts on my journey toward living more whole-heartedly and with greater acceptance. “Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself.” In this curious way my daughter’s birth, by all accounts a life-affirming event, has made me increasingly aware of my ascent on the Ferris wheel of life: standing on the other side of the chasm, it has brought about a deeper understanding of what losing my status as a mother’s daughter has robbed me of.
I’ve recently come to realize that my search for home is intimately and equally connected with my mother’s death and my daughter’s birth. In the midst of reading Katrina Kenison’s newest book, Magical Journey, she discusses how, while her children are largely grown and out of the house, she is still charged with tending the home fires. What allows her children to go out into the world and take risks as young adults is knowing that she is holding “home base,” with all its attendant rituals, routines and traditions. “It’s having a firm footing in the past…that allows them to step boldly forth into new territory.” The author of You Are Going to Die, upon facing his aging mother selling his childhood home, similarly says:
However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister. And beneath it all, even at age 45, there is the irrational, little-kid fear: Who’s going to take care of me? I remember my mother telling me that when her own mother died, when Mom was in her 40s, her first thought was: I’m an orphan.
Home isn’t so much a physical structure as an intricately woven web of the things that make a life, and when the person who holds that delicate, sturdy web in place dies or otherwise ceases to exist, so, too, goes the security of the web. For years I’ve wondered where my daring, risk-taking self disappeared to, and I’ve finally come to understand that she vanished along with my mother, that “irrational, little-kid fear” made all the more acute by enduring that loss in my early 20s, a time of shifting identities and the usual uncertainties of where my life might take me. That my childhood home had been sold the year before, many of its contents liquidated and the remnants siphoned into a small apartment and a dank storage unit, did not help. We all come to the realization that we must, ultimately, weave our own nets; I’ve just arrived here a little earlier than most.
Everything changes. There is no going back. But as I ratchet forward on the Ferris wheel, my car swinging perilously toward the top, I’m also beginning to understand that, after so many rootless years, life has given me an opportunity to now be the one who holds home base and weaves the web. Raising a young daughter forces me into uncomfortable territory every day, unwittingly nudging me towards that daring person I once was. I think my craving for home at this particular juncture has a great deal to do with wanting to provide steadiness for my daughter in the shadow of my own shallow root system. And maybe, through that process, my own roots will grow and deepen alongside hers.
Thank you to everyone for your kind and caring thoughts and comments last week regarding my recent hospital stay. In sharing this story with others over the past month I’ve come to realize that many people are “fainters,” especially those of us who are deeply sensitive and highly attuned to the world around them.
Also, the winner of a copy of Magical Journey was Jennifer! Thanks to everyone who left a comment, and congratulations, Jennifer.
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