I woke up with a start. I had been sick at my stomach overnight, and had forgotten to set my alarm. The light coming in the window and the sounds of children walking to school reminded me that I was somewhere familiar. I was supposed to meet a friend this morning. I texted a quick apology and we made plans to get together tonight instead. I stretched across the bed and considered falling back to sleep. Instead, I padded down the hall to the kitchen for a glass of water.
Standing in the middle of the living room, sipping my water, I stared out the familiar windows at familiar buildings. Something felt wrong. I shook it off. Lack of sleep. Upset stomach. My gaze dropped to a table by the window, and I noticed a small, dead plant in the darkest corner. I immediately felt bad that I had ignored it. I picked it up and took it to the kitchen, intending to throw it away. The brown, brittle leaves rustled but as I pulled out the trash can I noticed some green was left. Green. A sign of spring. Rebirth. Maybe it wasn’t completely dead. Maybe there was some life left. Some hope.
Holding the small plastic pot under the faucet, I let water trickle over the dry dirt until it ran out the bottom. Then I waited. I added some more water and waited again. I repeated this process until the dirt was dark and saturated. I put the pot into a mug I had received as a Christmas gift and carefully took it to the window sill. I whispered into the leaves as I crossed the room…”Don’t die. Seriously. I’m so sorry I neglected you. Just hang on. You can do this.” I placed it in the window that gets the most sunlight and hoped for the best.
And maybe it was lack of sleep or lack of food, but I suddenly was overwhelmed with sadness. I felt it happening. I began to cry. The kind of crying you do when someone you love dies. My heart was cracking open and my lungs were tearing apart. Huge gulps of air and animal noises and tears and snotballs… I’m certain the neighbors heard. It was uncontrollable. And every time I thought I was done, it started again. I took a break and paced the hall. I talked to myself. I felt ridiculous, and at the same time I thought I might be losing my mind. It felt like reality was slipping away. This wasn’t hormonal. And then I knew what it was. Through the tears and pain there was clarity. And it was scary. For a moment, I wished to not be alone. And then I knew I had to be.
All my life I’ve looked for signs. Believed in them. Embraced serendipity. But that’s all bullshit. I was creating a personal religion to avoid paying taxes. To justify living whatever life I chose. And at some point, if it’s not my real life, then I’m just pretending. Going through the motions of a stranger’s life. I was never that stranger. And I’ll never become her. That would be too easy.
I can pinpoint the day I became a passenger. I decided to live outside the bounds of my real life. Well, maybe I didn’t decide. It just happened. But I wasn’t paying attention. I should have known better. Over the course of the past year and a half, I have lived (and enjoyed) a life that wasn’t mine.
I’m going to admit a truth I’ve only told one other person. And even then, I didn’t tell them the whole truth:
When I had Doofenshmirtz, she was a C-section baby. It was an emergency. I stayed awake the entire time. And when they put me back together, I felt as if nothing was where it was supposed to be. As if I had been put together wrong. On top of that, my epidural had come undone, and I didn’t have any pain meds in my I.V. By the time the doctor realized what had happened, I had passed a threshold of pain that couldn’t be contained with another epidural or even morphine.
Up in my room, my mother-in-law sat next to my bed and helped me count down the 15 minutes between each dose of morphine. I could press the button as often as I wanted, but it only worked every 15 minutes. Later, as I watched 11 inches of snow fall out of the West Texas sky, I stayed awake. I knew that if I fell asleep I would die. That feeling has never left me. With very few exceptions, every night as I fall asleep I think I will die. I’m not afraid of it, I just feel that it’s going to happen.
As I fall asleep, I tell myself little stories about my life, and I take stock. I relive old memories. I’m sure it has had a major effect on my dreams. Insomnia became my new best friend. The feeling that I would die each night had another effect. I began to make sure “my affairs were in order” on a daily basis. I compulsively couldn’t leave my office or my house or even my truck without making sure everything was in good condition for someone else to find. Files, closets, drawers… all in order. And it has nothing to do with being neat or orderly. It’s 100% based on imminent death. When I packed for trips, I made sure that I was wearing jewelry that could help a loved one identify me.
And in case you are on the fence about whether or not I’m truly crazy, here’s one to help clinch it. I make sure my teeth are brushed and my legs are shaved and my fingers and toes are neat and polished because I would feel bad if I ended up on a slab and someone had to deal with a shabby dead body. You know the saying, “Live every day as if it was your last”? I think I’ve taken that to the next level.
Over the past 20 years I have experienced my share of loss. I am not okay with that. I don’t handle loss well. With each loss, I would pick up a new hobby. And I don’t mean knitting or bird watching. I would attack a “new life” with an almost rabid desperation. Roller coasters, concerts, travel. I felt as if I had to do everything before it’s too late which, in my world, is daily. I just didn’t want to miss out. I would help anyone who needed it, even if it meant giving up a part of myself. I trusted everyone. If I spent all my time helping others, I didn’t have to focus on me. Simple.
With my most recent loss, I just decided to completely ignore it. If it wasn’t there…if I didn’t pay attention…then maybe it wasn’t real. And if it wasn’t real, it wouldn’t hurt. Avoidance was my friend. I collected small moments of happiness like they were seashells. I could open that treasure box and pull them out and remember a time before everything changed. All the while living someone else’s life.
Turns out, that was my most ridiculous period of avoidance in the history of me. The pain that comes with reality is inevitable. Putting it off makes it worse. Almost unbearable. In all the years of accepting a death that never came, I never accepted reality. Isn’t it crazy that I was more okay with the idea of death than the idea of reality? Maybe. But I get it now. I actually get it. And it sucks, but I know what to do. It’s time to accept reality. To go back to the land of the living and look for myself instead of signs. It’s time to be okay with all of the bad crap and let it go. I am loved and I am safe and I will make reality my bitch.
I wandered back over to the plant. I gave her another drink and named her “Phoenix”. Maybe she will make it. Maybe she will die tomorrow. Or years from now. But I won’t ignore her any more.
I needed a nap. As I walked back down the hall, I whispered to myself, “Don’t die. Seriously. I’m so sorry I neglected you. Just hang on. You can do this.”