by Tessa Meyer Santiago
Often in the past twenty years, I have been surprised by a feeling: as if I’ve woken to find myself in a place not altogether unknown, but surprising all the same: walking down the hallways of the high school, I expect to see Karen and Patrick hanging out by the book room, as they did in 1983. I know, intellectually, I’m 43 and on my way to pick up a child for the orthodontist, but pushing through those glass doors into the high school smell, I feel the sixteen-year-old thrill of walking down the hallway, hoping against schedule and tardy make-up, that he will be there today. And there he is, walking towards me, his basketball calves stretching Allen Iverson-thin into his khaki Dickies. My heart skips a beat, as I watch him saunter toward me. That he calls me “Mom” stuns me into present. To my surprise, the lanky man-child walking toward me with that half-hitch in his step, braces glinting, is not Derek, but my son, Christian.
A post-midnight with sleeping bodies in beds, lights off everywhere, except maybe over the sink, a cup of rooibos tea in hand, curled up on the leather couch, book on the arm, listening to the noises of the night house. I’ve spent so many nights in this position at this same time, that, if I am very still, and all I hear is my breath and the same heart beating inside me since before memory, it is hard to tell whether the breathing coming from the other room is my father or my husband; am I seven or forty-three?
Can I be all three? Because, sitting on the couch in my forty-three-year old body, I can still feel the hot flush of shame that fills a seven-year-old body when she realizes she is wholly out of step with the majority, that what she thought was normal was, in fact, quite startling. I can still remember taking my mother’s hand to cross Main Road in Claremont, spacing my fingers to fit between hers, feeling the warmth of her palm cup against mine. My son Adam holds my hand as we run through the parking lot after the game (not as often as before but sometimes still) and when his little fingers fill the curves at the base of mine, for a moment I cannot quite tell whose hand is whose. I am simultaneously small Tessa, knobbly-kneed in green school uniform, and someone’s mother. The years run through me like it was yesterday, today and tomorrow at the same time.
In my today, I have a husband; four children, one of whom started college last week and needs her tuition paid by the 9th; a mortgage; three cars and a borrowed scooter on which we pay the insurance; a soccer team to coach every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday of the season;; briefs to draft and complaints to prepare; an incontinent bulldog who doesn’t like to do her business in the snow so, from November to March, chooses the family room entryway instead; grasshoppers that have invaded my flowerbeds; a weekly tennis group; dirty laundry piled to the window sill. None of these accoutrements make me feel grown up. I supposed they should but they don’t.
I thought getting older meant I would suddenly be transformed into the competent, unruffled, self-assured adults who surrounded me as children–at least from my vantage point closer to the ground. I am still awaiting that transformation: I never wanted to clean my room as a child; I still don’t. The amount of sheer concentration and energy required for to complete a load of laundry, folded all the way into the drawers, is staggering. I didn’t make my bed as a teenager; I rarely do now. Not much has changed inside me on the domestic front as far as I can feel. The yesterdays of me tag along.
Even situations which come with getting older didn’t cause me to feel grown up: the bile of terror rising in my throat as I realize I can still feel my toes just as they are about to cut through me for another C-section; the sinking loneliness that fills when when I realize at four this morning I almost shook my screaming three-week old; the numb of having no job, and no steady income; the shame of having left a child racked with seizures on the operating table because I couldn’t control my sobbing. I did not feel grown up. I felt scared, alone, numb and ashamed–not feelings I thought belonged to the grown up life.
All I knew in these situations was that I was on the cusp of new and unknown. To add to my discomfort, I believed, for every story, there was a script, a set of easy answers, if I could only find them. I grew up amongst ready-made answers to my unuttered questions about what life I should live, what I should worship, whom I should marry, and not whether to have children but how many. Sometimes those “shoulds” fit like the hand-me-down dresses I used to wear from my older sister Margo. Pretty, but so tight around the chest and arms, I huffed my way through Sunday School to avoid splitting the smocking from armpit to armpit. Past experience with tightfitting, hand-me-downs notwithstanding, I’d pull out my catalog of shoulds and woulds: a new mother should feel consuming joy; a real mother would nurse through mastitis so severe her nipples crack from top to bottom; a supportive wife would have dinner ready and be willing to dip into the 401k; a competent attorney would so obviously know how to select a jury; a real coach would have prepared her striker for the offside trap.
Faced with such daunting standards, my own responses took on a “deer in the headlights then hit by a truck” quality–stunned into silence, then a stagger sideways, blinking rapidly. Always, always, my response contained an aspect of flight. Faced with the gap between what I thought a grown up me should be/feel/do and what I am/feel/have done, I feel to run–away. Me and Bono, we both want to run–to the waiting room, to a book which offers escape, to the mall, to the shopping cart on Zappos–anywhere I can start breathing again, and try wrap my arms around what it means to be where I find myself: not the real mother, not the real coach, not the supportive wife, not the competent attorney in a situation which so obviously calls for one. Then, having got my blinking and breathing under control, the imposter-me, who still remembers the feel of her mother’s hand and wishes for it them, sidles back in to play somebody else’s mother.
I am learning that, sometimes, it requires tremendous courage and nerve to simply show up, to be present in a particular day. To be completely utterly and present in the days in which you realize your business is failing and you will have to declare bankruptcy; in that particular day when it sinks in he is leaving you and your children and you will be divorced; in that day and the days that follow when you realize you cannot live with this man any longer and that you need to make a new life; in the days that you look at your children and their choices and weep for them and continue to love them; in the days after death; in the day where you take your beloved’s face between your hands and ask him about “us”; in the days where there is $11.57 in the drawer and no milk until the end of the week; in the day you lose your job and the months of unemployment that follow. Those days that I never thought would be mine, which I could not have imagined–those are my most important days. How I face them shows me I have finally grown up.
Instead of running and apologizing on my return, I am choosing to stand. I’m letting the ebb of the unknown and uncertain flow over and through me. I’m concentrating on stillness. I’m trusting my solutions are sufficient; that the uncertainty which accompanies life will not overwhelm me; that the difficult conversations and laundry are necessary. I’m seeing that my willingness to show up, in whatever inadequate, diluted form, is the most significant measure of a grown up life. And, in my willingness to stand rooted, to be present, I feel the blossoming of calm.
Title: from Counting Crows, “Perfect Blue Buildings”
Tessa Meyer Santiago: Married for almost 20 years; 4 children; trained as an attorney after teaching college for ten years; native of South Africa, living in the Rockies; plays soccer on the Latin Ladies indoor soccer team. You can read more on her site, Giraffes Make Me Laugh.