There are so many reasons to feel disappointed by life. The job you didn’t get. The writing submissions that were rejected. The relationships that didn’t last. Personal failures. Natural disasters. Political shutdowns, bad behavior, a series of unfortunate events.
The list is endless.
Last weekend I felt like an Uber driver as I shuffled the kids between Japanese school and swim lessons and the events we had to attend. At one point in the midst of the hustle, between destination A and B during the second leg of our day, there was a lull in our conversation (AKA the chatter of the three children ceased, maybe thanks to 3.5 hours of school on a Saturday that wore them out). For a few minutes I was alone with my thoughts.
You know what that can mean.
We often have some of our deepest thinking in the car. Movies portray big family moments at the dinner table, but I think they underrepresent the kind of stuff that happens in the car. A therapist who we once worked with for my stepson told us that kids often bring up sensitive topics while the parent is driving. Something about it being a place where the driver is sort of distracted, but everyone is together with minimal other distractions, and somehow this makes the situation feel safer to be vulnerable.
I don’t think I have made any profound declarations in the car, but I do find myself often absorbed in deep thinking, which is why I have a habit of keeping a pen and paper (or napkins, as is often the case) nearby to jot down notes for later reference.
So I was headed to swim lessons, thinking about what we would do for parking if we couldn’t find any, glancing at the clock every couple of seconds to make sure we were on time, anticipating the next event and wondering how realistic a nap would be for the little one once we got home, when all of a sudden a random thought interrupted the logistical details swirling in my head: this year would have been my tenth wedding anniversary.
No context. Just an internal clock whispering to me that May 12th was coming sooner rather than later. We were entering that season.
Then I couldn’t stop fixating on it.
Whenever I am reminded of these triggering dates, my mind cycles through the ways that I will feel pain. Triggers can either be subtle reminders, or they can open floodgates of emotions. In that moment, I wasn’t sure which direction it would go.
So much disappointment and pain. Resentment. Anger. Emptiness.
This one random thought triggered a cascade of negative thoughts. I started to think about how I will have to watch everyone who got married around the same time as us celebrate their tenth anniversaries. How there will be Facebook posts. Anniversary celebrations. Pictures of these other couples at dinner, or maybe on a romantic trip to Hawaii.
But not us.
The disappointment feels like heavy anchors pulling me under.
Today I had our annual professional development at work. Twelve years ago I met Kenneth at this PD day, so it came to be a day with sentimental value for us. I was a presenter when he noticed me for the first time. I remember we talked through lunch, both of us forgetting to eat before our next meeting, too enthralled in a discussion about philosophy and poetry and politics. Our souls became intertwined and inseparable on that day–and it was an unexpected magic that just sort of hit me upside the head when I was least expecting it.
And then he died.
This year was the third PD day without him. There was nothing magical that happened. I found the day incredibly disappointing on so many levels. Professionally. Existentially.
And always personally.
These are the dates when Kenneth’s absence feels the heaviest. I ate lunch alone, pausing for a moment to squeeze my eyelids shut in a futile attempt to remember what it was like to have him there. I yearned for the days when he could commiserate with me and reaffirm my efforts, always making me feel like I had at least one person on my side in a world where I often feel like I do not belong.
I can’t help but go back to the same self-pitying conclusion: it’s not fair.
Not fair, not fair, not fair.
It’s such a deep, searing pain that very few people understand. I find that most people think life is fine for me because I can hold everything together and joke and not fall apart in front of them. But rest assured that inside I am so rotted and fatigued by this exile that I often wonder how much longer I will survive.
I know there will always be triggers. I know there will be disappointment. It’s normal, I know. I consider myself a very pragmatic person.
But even a robot like me can’t deny the sensitive spots that hurt to touch, because beneath the surface there are the wounds of the past and I’m a fragile snowflake like every other mortal.
On my good days, I try to leave it at that. Acknowledge a particular feeling (or set of feelings) tied to the trigger, and work to not let them harden me.
But sometimes I just have to fall apart and cry, because it is lonely, soul-draining work to be tougher and more stubborn than our wounds.
I want to resent everyone who has what I don’t have. I want to not have to go to the PD day. I want to skip May 12th and not have to be reminded of my anniversary. I want to close my eyes and wake up to the news that this was all just a bad nightmare and I don’t have to carry this burden anymore.
If only life worked that way.
Instead, I have to choose to stop fighting it. Let go of what I can not control.
The way that I try to avoid getting hardened is to look on the bright side. It’s cliche, but what are the things I can look forward to that I couldn’t do in my past life? What did I learn from not getting what I wanted? What can I turn this pain into?
In the end, I am the only one who gets hurt by going down the forlorn road of “why me?”. Nobody else will lose sleep over it. It is entirely my burden to carry and my exile to fulfill. So why add more pain? There are already too many reasons to hurt. I don’t want another one.
I have big plans for the 10th anniversary I won’t have. I’m going to Spain with 20-year-old Maddy. The last time I traveled as a single woman was a few months before the fateful PD day that changed the rest of my life. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been sent back to the start square in the boardgame of Life, but I try to re-frame it as coming full circle. New chapters. New beginnings. New opportunities.
I mean, if you asked the version of me from three years ago–the woman fully immersed in domesticity, breastfeeding a baby and bickering with her husband over folding the laundry and doing almost nothing for herself– she probably would have been in disbelief that this was how she’d spend her tenth anniversary.
Or maybe not. When we got married, Kenneth and I went on separate trips. We joked it was our “separate honeymoons.” He went to visit a friend in Canada, and I went to visit family in Alabama.
Perhaps we prepare our entire lives for that future moment that rips us in half and we just don’t know it. Maybe that’s how we learn to put ourselves back together.
Who knows. What I do know is that there will be more disappointment. More triggers. Endless pain.
I guess when that happens I will just have to submit more writing. Forge new relationships. Figure out what to do with my career. Seek other opportunities when others do not pan out. Learn. Adjust. Keep going. Turn May 12th into something else.
Maybe Kenneth and I would have gone on a romantic beach vacation for our tenth anniversary. Maybe we would have stayed home and bickered. Who knows.
All I know is that I can either work with reality–make the best out of what I have and find ways to still be happy– or I can wage the insurmountable battle of trying to change the past.
I choose to work with reality.
But not tonight.
Tonight I cry myself to sleep.
Tomorrow I wake up with puffy eyes and squeeze some more hope out of this tattered heart that has been precariously glued back together over and over again.
There has to be a bright side. Somewhere.