These notebooks with their ragged handwriting began as a letter to myself, then became a letter to another mother with a daughter, then another with a son, then a father with a son, and then, somehow, a letter to the world—to any parent who might be hungry, like me, to feel a little less alone. I keep writing to unravel the past five years in which I’ve felt so lost, and lost so much—of myself, my child, a dream of family. I write with blind faith.
When things were good between us, I wondered if someday, sooner than later, Olivia might write our story with me—and, of course, against me. But that she’d write her story. And that we might, somehow, write our separate yet entwined stories, letting them speak to each other. She was in the middle of writing a short story about a young woman, a musician, for English. She’d let me read early drafts. It was good. And so I asked her several times in various ways.
That last time, I was driving her home. I told her about a book I’d just read, Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kid and Ann Kidd Taylor. That fascinating memoir is written as a double narrative in alternating chapters. In part, it’s about a daughter’s depression and a mother’s longing to have a more honest relationship with her adult child. I didn’t describe the book in quite this way to Liv; I focused more on their travels together.
After many years of paying attention, asking questions, reading, attending therapy, listening carefully, and asking more questions—all to learn about depression, and Olivia’s individual experience with depression, it has still been difficult to truly understand with my cells, with my bones. It is one thing to intellectually fathom another’s suffering, and another to truly “know” that suffering from living.
While I once struggled with post-partum depression, even that didn’t touch this love for ordinary, day-to-day life that I’ve felt since childhood. Regardless of anything I’ve ever had to face, this love is a kind of pleasure in simple things, a pleasure that almost always dilutes pain. It could be anything—a random song on the radio, laughing from the gut, or a stranger’s garden lit by porch light as I pass on a night-time walk.
But it has seemed as if Liv often doesn’t have the energy to enjoy small pleasures, much less her passions, and that her longings may be dulled yet her hunger grows. As if food cannot feed her. And, of course, craving is not longing.
The times when her craving to no longer feel has become stronger than her longing to live, I’ve been reminded, yet again, just how little I know my daughter.
Since I was a teenager, even in my darkest moments I’ve always known that I’m not capable or even interested in ending my life. If things were to become unbearable, I’m the sort that would start over, somehow. Run away & join the circus. That potential can hold dangers of its own, dangers that are different but perhaps just as potent as depression. Yet, facing what I’ve lived through in a half century, perhaps what’s hardest is that one life cannot possibly be long enough for all I want to live and do in this world, and meanwhile, the people we love will leave us, or we’ll leave them, one way or another, one by one. Some days, I feel I’ve squandered too much of what Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life,” and if I’m not feeling grounded and strong, anxiety can sure hold its own charge and challenge. While I’ve never gone on medication, I’ve wanted to. My therapist, I’ll call her Ellie, helped me see that the anxiety I sometimes feel is more situational than organic, although over time, if unabated, it can become a habit. In trying to help my daughter during some of the more recent frightening incidents, I realized that I had a choice to try medication or change my life by shifting my responses to my life. I’ve kept choosing the latter. Or trying to.
Olivia and I have struggled to fathom each other’s angst, and faced with her desire to fall asleep and never wake up, my anxiety increased, becoming a toxic cocktail laced with adrenaline and dread that the morning would come when I couldn’t rouse her.
“Parenting is, by definition, co-dependent,” Ellie said to me more than once as I watched myself become obsessed with the overwhelming job of trying to do what I could to keep my kid safe. And so, at times during the past few years, when I’ve realized the job of parenting was beginning to overtake my pleasure in living, I wrote—even just a page. It’s medicine that works.
We crossed the bridge and shining river so bright beneath the afternoon’s angle of sun just before it slipped behind the mountain. Her window was down. She let her hand dance lazily in the breeze. Men were fishing off the bridge, casting their lines just before the dam, casting into the waters where I kayak. My eyes searched the river’s silver skin, where I wanted to be.
Sitting in a boat always makes things clear. The river is an oracle. It was on that river—a place where I am most myself—that I suddenly knew my grandmother was dying, and knew to paddle back, pack my bags, and fly south. Nothing in anyone’s voice from back home had told me to do this so soon. I docked my boat, bought a ticket, and drove to the airport. My brother called to ask me why. Of course, Jo felt it when I felt it. She’d already begun working on her reservations to my birthplace when I told her I had to go home. Olivia’s great-grandmother died within a few hours of my arrival.
Now, when I look at the river, I remember that day and know that all I need is to get in my boat, and soon enough, I’ll know whatever it is I need to know. Or that I can’t yet know.
And so, as I turned the wheel, turned the corner—asking Olivia to write a story with me—I glanced at the river for a little good luck. A little grace. Liv was five years younger than Ann Kid Taylor was when Ann wrote her story. And I knew my proposal was unrealistic. Still, I told Liv that I wanted to write about our life together, about our family. And that she could be part of it, if she wanted. I left out the part about not knowing how to do it but needing to find my way through the pain, or that I hoped we’d find our way back to each other, and most of all, that she’d find her way back to herself. I didn’t need to say it. Liv is a writer. She could translate the invitation.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it,” she said, staring at the water as we traced the bank.
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