Dear Twenty-Something Self: Your Dreams Aren’t Going to Come True and I’m Good With That

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

I can’t go back to yesterday — because I was a different person then — Lewis Carroll

Look at you my lovely, once-upon-a-time self. 25. Newly married to your high school sweetheart, your story is just beginning. Everything is on schedule to begin your modern fairy tale. The outline has been predetermined — by you. Exhilarated, you await the fleshing out of the finer details, certain they will meet your expectations.

What you don’t realize, is the best-laid dreams of starry-eyed ingenues don’t always come true.

Life’s journey will take you through inconceivable storms. At times, you will feel stripped and shattered, certain you will never be whole again. But, I’m here to tell you — three decades later — you will weather the tempests. Your memoir will be illustrated with the colors of a sweeping saga. You will recover, replenish, and rebuild time and time again. You will forge a heart of restoration and hope.

You will be your own heroine.

Prologue

Our life’s quest was a typical middle-class narration: Vivacious college-educated woman marries a smart handsome man who adores her. They start out in a modest home, eventually settling down in an upscale neighborhood with their four children — two boys, two girls. Money never being a concern, it is her choice whether she spends her days at an office or volunteering, or perhaps, a little of both. Summers would be filled with pool parties and family vacations. All her children would be athletic, smart, and popular. Soon, they would meet their own mates, have successful careers, and provide grandchildren. The blissed-filled grandparents eventually ease into a comfortable retirement and enjoy the fruits of a fairy tale legacy.

If you haven’t guessed already, younger me, that is not how our story turns out. You might think I’m seeking to dampen your naïveté, but that is not the case. To do so would douse the sparks of our history. I’m here to highlight some of the events that will steer you to roads less traveled. Annotate some of your preconceptions. Not to have you switch course, for that would result in a different destination, but to provide you with the faith you’ll need to continue your path.

To become the woman of character you aspire to be.

Being a zebra will be limiting

In our twenties, everything was black and white — politics, faith, parenting. We were crafting our cornerstones and needed a firm foundation to build upon. They served us well — provided strong roots, made us feel secure — until they became confining. They distracted us from soothing shades of grey and the charms of nuance. I shudder when I realize how dogmatic we were, failing to recognize another’s sense of right and wrong could be just as valid.

There will come a time when society feeds like vultures on such assumptions. When those who may think differently from each other are regarded as enemies. It will grieve our soul, but we will be mindful to have practiced perspective — preserved our humanity.

We won’t be the perfect parent

Infertility issues will limit our offspring to two. Blessed with a couple of fine young lads, we will throw ourselves completely into their nurturing. Education, nutrition, sports, discipline, recreation, family time all mapped out to promote optimal growth. We oversaw with a loving, not overbearing, hand — providing just enough oversight to assist direction and encourage independence. It would be practically perfect — or so we thought.

It will take a while to acknowledge some mistakes — an unnecessarily heavy hand, a few minor (and major) misjudgments. But we will eventually comprehend we did the best we had with the resources available. It will bring us a sense of peace and a newfound insight into the caring nature of our own parents.

Our hero will die, but we will survive

The ultimate breach to the fairy tale contract, our hero dies midway through the story. The dissolving of the partnership is a long, drawn-out process. We were a team and when the hero began to falter, we picked up the slack. Our role expanded to include caretaker, nurse, and, finally, widowed head of household.

We will be proud of ourselves for enduring. For maintaining some moment of normalcy each day, even if only in a robotic function. It will take decades to fully process this forced single ownership of our sanity — cultivate our acceptance of personal sovereignty.

We will need to go to the well repeatedly

Fiercely independent, it will crush us to ask for help. After all, we are the primary caregiver, not the recipient. We will be prideful, convinced that no one else is equipped to provide quality assistance. Adding insult, this will not be a single occurrence. We will find ourselves in numerous states of injury, dipping in the well of kindness again and again until we are sure it will run dry.

Like the miracle at Cana, our community wine never depletes and we are inebriated with gratitude. We develop empathy — foster humility. We acquire debts we have no chance to repay and are awestruck by their joy in giving.

Villains will serve a purpose

We will encounter more than our expected share of villainy. After all, every fairy tale needs a counterbalance of dastardly deeds to keep us engaged. Some will be overt and others will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, but all will catch us off guard and cause us to briefly doubt our judgment.

Much to the scoundrels’ dismay, however, each conflict will bestow a gift. These endowments will cause us to develop skills or discover hidden kernels of truth within ourselves. We will garner discernment — be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Our children will write their own stories

Regrettably, we were somewhat judgmental of others’ styles of parenting. If they didn’t align with ours, we surmised these offspring would be spoiled or — gasp! — unproductive members of society. Gradually, we began to appreciate the true nature of a child — of a human — will come to be no matter the influence. They will bloom in their own time and be beautiful.

As much as we tried, we could not prevent our sons from suffering, enduring hardship, or making mistakes and living with the consequences. We could only strive to provide a safe haven and a strong moral compass to chart their own paths. Like us, they have prevailed and grown sturdy, strong. Watching them navigate their courses will be our greatest accomplishment.

Epilogue

Picking up the pieces will be a never-ending process. Initially, our defenses will want to cover our wounds, camouflage our scars. But those shrouds are too difficult to maintain and we will never able to fully rest within our story if we continue to try.

And so, we will come to embrace our imperfections — honor our unique broken history. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we will highlight our fractures with gold, delighting in our resilience. Our modern fairy tale may have an unforeseen conclusion, but it will end happily ever after all the same.

 

From Dread to Hope: Making Peace With Father’s Day

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Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash a caption

As a Widowed Mother, the Day Kinda Sucked

When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother  -  for me  -  the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.

Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.

I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.

My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.

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Typical Father’s Day Haul

When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.

Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.

After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.

We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off  -  like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father  –  a damn good one  -  I could never take his place.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse

It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.

The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.