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.

 

In Search of Big Girl Panties

I have very little tolerance for martyrdom. It’s the helplessness and the “feel sorry for me” mindset. I am the first one to say, “Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it, woman!” If I see someone continuously curled up in a ball, my initial instinct is to kick him or her down a staircase. Not my most empathetic attribute.

A little over five years ago, my husband, Matt, died.

There. I said the “D” word. I’m a regular user of all the euphemisms — “passed away,” “the day we lost him,” “left.” There is nothing wrong with any of them and most likely I will continue to use them. It’s just that I have specifically avoided the word DIED. It seems so irrevocable — so harsh —

so … dead.

Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to write this. Why it has taken over half a decade to begin the process of putting on my personal panties and dealing. I always had something else more important, someone else who needed my attention. In retrospect, there is no doubt I erected those “somethings” and “someones” as barricades to protect (obstruct?) my own recovery. These barricades even had their own set of panties: the mother, high-waisted and lacking all femininity; the candy striper, supportive and sticky sweet; and the trooper, camouflaged to disguise any hint of vulnerability. I need to get a new pair. My own fresh and unique undies.

Now — for the first time in my life — I am living alone. An empty-nester. A widow. Single. Honestly, I dislike all labels. I would rather be known by my personality and accomplishments than my “situation.” The situation is whispered about at parties or school functions. Occasionally, I’ll catch an attempt at the discreet finger point. No one introduces me as the Widow Gastaldo, but the title is there. It’s my aura.

Then there are the times that I want to scream it from the rooftops. I want to stand on a stage yelling into a microphone,

“Do you know who I am?!

Do you know what I have gone through?!

SYMPATHIZE WITH MY SITUATION!!!!”

I then consume an entire cherry pie, sit down to watch an episode of Parenthood and sob.

I guess it’s time to dissect and digest these classifications. Empty-nester. When my husband died (there, I said it again) our boys were thirteen and fifteen, in eighth and ninth grade. Resolute to make up for what they had lost, I threw myself into volunteering for their football team, their track team, whatever. If they were on the field, I was on the field. Matt had coached every sport they were in from the age of four and I was determined to continue that legacy. This was the era of the mother and the candy striper. Then the boys went off to college and suddenly high-waisted and sweet didn’t fit quite right. Don’t mistake me; I have never been one to pine for days gone by with my boys. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage of their life as it occurred. Ecstatic for what they have accomplished and what their future brings, #proudmama is my most frequent hashtag. But the nest is unoccupied now. It is too silent. I can go an entire day without uttering a single word. I need a new focus.

Widow. Wearer of the trooper. Most days I don’t feel old enough to have the title. Yes, I am aware of how cliché that sounds, but it is authentic. In my mind, I am that 16-year-old naïve teenager that my husband fell in love with. (High-school sweethearts, another cliché.) I still have years left to achieve and witness much. Other times, I feel extraordinarily ancient. A lifetime lived-and-done-with, begun-and-completed-earlier than most. Then there’s the look the word generates. I hate the look!!! It passes across their face when your situation is explained and people contemplate you like a caged dog in a shelter that needs rescue.

I swear I can hear Sarah McLachlan singing.

Now the worst of all — Single. Ownership of that designation is still difficult, maybe because I did not chose to be single. It was thrust upon me like a lance that I could not avert. Single sounds whole and complete. But I don’t feel whole. I feel hacked, a fraction of what I once was. For better or worse, clichés and all, Matt was my better-half and I was his. We shaped each other into adulthood. He was my seatmate in life’s roller coaster and now I’m the single rider — the extra. Sometimes, I wish people could see the giant scab that runs the length of me and has yet to completely scar and heal. They unknowingly pick at it and would be mortified to find out they do. Yet each time a husband lightly strokes his wife’s back during casual conversation or a wife gives her husband a look that can mean anything, but only he understands, the scab bleeds just a bit. I quickly wipe it away so no one will notice, but the sting lingers. It is the actual physical sensation that NO ONE warns you about and thus you are unprepared. Unprepared for the craving of non-sexual intimacy and chemistry you used to know. A forced detox if you will, constantly longing for the fix of a hug or caress or casual conversation. There are no undergarments for this, only bandages.

So that’s it. That’s the situation. I know I won’t be able to shed these classifications easily or entirely, but a girl has to start. It’s time to remove the roadblocks, resist the urge to roll up like a pill bug and shop for my new big-girl panties. Perhaps I will head to Victoria’s Secret and settle on an eye-of-the-tiger-wonder-woman hipster. Or (gasp!) a thong. If you see me veering towards the clearance rack located in the Aisle of Martyrdom, please take me to the top of the nearest staircase and kick.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com