17 years ago as I was leaving St. Vincent’s hospital in New York City, I found myself standing on the sidewalk with my newborn, as my then husband hailed a cab. It was a cold November morning, we were all bundled up, my son in a red fleecy thing my Mom made him. A feeling swept over me that I had never felt before or since. I suppose it was love, but it felt bigger than that four-letter word that gets batted about and can mean so little.
In that moment I knew this tiny helpless being held the power to destroy me. Weird thing to think, I know. Know what else is weird: at 50 I’ve a new found admiration for Eminem. Go figure. Best not to overthink what might be weird about me. In that moment on the sidewalk, I got just how precious and fragile life is and how freaking vulnerable I am, when I love something with all my being.
Cut to this summer. I was an anxious wreck, doom lurked in all my favorite places. Suddenly many of the natural wonders that have in the past brought me peace, represented danger. Deer ticks with lyme disease, mosquitoes with Zika virus and my beloved lake where I spend my summers, suddenly held the possibility of deadly brain-eating amoeba (granted, not a high possibility, but this summer my tolerance for risk became lower than ever before). Joy and happiness had left me.
What in the world is going on? I wondered. This new turn of events is not at all how I pictured my summer.
I wondered about the collective consciousness and the current political and social climate laced with fear. I wondered about letting my 15-year-old venture out into the wild landscape of Los Angeles on his own, going to rap concerts and music festivals. As my 17-year-old was thinking about SAT scores and college admissions essays, I urged him to follow joy, and not try to be what he thought others wanted. He did not seem quite ready to hear this advice. Oh, and I was turning 50.
In the middle of the night fear would tickle me awake (or maybe it was just that I had to pee), either way it was there, whispering in my ear, what if, what if, what if…
What if something terrible happens and it’s all my fault because I should have made a different choice, been more careful, known better? Because that’s what the voice always says: I should have known better. So I lay awake calculating the risks, running plans, creating scenarios and solutions, over and over again. For hours. Before I am able to trick myself into going back to sleep with a promise that if I need, I can return to my thinking in the daylight hours. Not sleeping is only going to make me feel worse and everything feel worse than it already does.
Safety—that’s what I was trying to latch onto. Anything that could guarantee safety. And I came up empty-handed, again and again. There were no guarantees.
Bad shit happens. That’s what makes life so precious and fragile. Maybe the gift of this summer is learning how to lean into the fear of losing that which is most precious to me. And maybe in that leaning in, I will discover what it is to truly be alive.
The alternative, turning away, seeking distraction, going to sleep, means slipping into a lull of false belief that I am in control. I’ve been there before: it covers everything a dull gray sheen.
Though I desperately want to sometimes, I can’t unknow what I know about the dangers that come with being alive. So I leaned into, embraced, made friends with my fear. Hello, little one, I know you are scared, I feel your heart aching at the thought of losing what is precious to you. You want so badly to keep everyone safe. I am with you. You are not alone.
When we got home to Los Angeles after 6 weeks in the midwest, my oldest son said he was thinking to watch all the Harry Potter movies again—would I like to join him? Yes, yes, yes! There is nothing I’d like better. In fact, I’m pretty much willing to set aside whatever I’m doing for these movie nights.
The morning after we’d watched movie number three, I saw an Instagram post of my friend embracing her son at the airport. He was heading across the country to college. The tenderness and ache brought tears to my eyes. A few minutes later I was straightening the cushions on the couch (Virgos likes things neat and tidy), and found it filled with crumbs from my son’s movie snacking the night before. I smiled, and perhaps for the first time ever, felt grateful for the crumbs on the couch.