We put so. much. effort into the illusion of being fine.
There’s a picture saved on my computer that I will probably never show another person. It was taken a few hours before my mother died, at my daughter’s insistence, her sweet 4-year-old smile hovering over the planes and angles cancer had carved into my mom’s face.
We do weird things in death sometimes, and my mom’s left eye just wouldn’t stay closed. Neither would her mouth, hanging open with each long, slow, laborious breath.
I guess if you weren’t me, this picture could look like a nightmare. I guess, even for me, it still can be. There are times when I need to feel that loss with bone-breaking intensity, like today, when my new normal feels like betrayal, so I pull that image up and look at it for long moments, poking at my tender heart with a stick.
I’m not OK, on this day, in this moment. But when an acquaintance passed me in the checkout line of the grocery store and asked me how I was, I flipped my smile switch and cheerfully replied, “I’m fine!”
But I’m not fine. So many of us are not fine. So many of us are not even remotely OK today.
I’ll go first.
I’m not OK today.
Today, I made the call to have my sweet old dog put down. Friday at 2 PM, I’ll say goodbye to a friend I’ve had for sixteen years. Her back legs barely work anymore, and her bowel function is basically zero, so I have to clean up poop multiple times a day, every day.
Sometimes she sleeps in it. Sometimes she walks through it and trails it all over our bedroom. I want to spare her any further indignity, but it took over half an hour to make myself punch the numbers into my phone and press enter.
My husband has already done the one thing I couldn’t do: dug a grave for her. And it’s right outside our kitchen window, waiting. I can hardly look at it without crying. I can hardly look at her without crying. The space around my feet already feels empty.
Today, the ghosts are closing in on me. I’m wearing clothes that smell like my mom. The urge to call her rolls over me like a tsunami and in the wake of it, I’m left bereft, knowing I will never hear her voice again.
I never expected to be motherless before forty — or fatherless for that matter — and the next half of my life as an orphan stretches out in front of me as far as I can see, endless days of all the questions I can’t ask, all the love I can’t give. Sometimes it feels like a vast desert, but right now, it’s a frozen tundra, and I’m encased in ice from the inside out.
Who do I ask about adding one or two degrees when using an under-the-arm temperature to check for fever? Who will make me shift uncomfortably in my seat by making inappropriate remarks about shirtless men? Who will leave the scent of leather and smoke lingering on my skin after a rare hug? Who will call me daughter?
Today, I’m getting back on track after a days-long rheumatoid arthritis flare. I’m no longer on fire from my fingers to my knees but the residual warmness reminds me I’m only one bad day away from being flat on my back.
When I walked to the bathroom this morning, it felt like traveling across electric wire, the painful jolts in my feet almost giving off sparks. My joints are rusty hinges, my bones ancient and dry. My brain tries to get its bearings in the middle of a grey fog so thick you could cut it.
I forget simple words, names for things — lawn mower, vitamins, the name of the stuff we use to wash the dishes, you know, that stuff right there on the edge of the sink, yes that, dishwashing liquid, OK thank you. I just want to do the laundry without resting. I just want to stir the cookie dough without stopping to flex my hand and wrist. I just want to bend over and touch my toes. I just want to wake up and move, no waiting period required.
Today, I suck at budgeting and fight against measuring my worth by how bad I am with money.
Today, I ate an avocado for lunch, and a tube full of Reese’s Pieces for dinner.
Today, I forgot to miss my grandpa, but my chest almost caved in with wanting to be a child again so my grandma could scratch my back until I fell asleep.
Today, I yelled at both of my kids, then apologized, and then yelled again.
Today, I broke down and cried halfway through eating a banana.
Today, I deactivated my Facebook account on impulse because I can’t take one more sad story or one more reminder of all the stuff that I get wrong.
Today, it took an unimaginable amount of energy to keep loving myself, to practice grace and compassion when I’d really like nothing more than to sucker punch my own face. Today is a bad day. Today I’m emphatically, undeniably, unavoidably not OK.
What would happen if we could just be honest about the days we feel like abject failures, when we feel about as strong as a crumpled up tissue, damp and fragile? We put so much effort into the illusion of being fine.