A short letter to a long ago self

Journeying across the Styx in the time of Corona, discovering with my child a new shore where the parting mists reveal the pricelessness of permanence

Image: By Vanessa Santos, courtesy of the United Nations.

Ten years ago I was packing up my bags, readying to move to a new country and continent to start a new career and rebuild my life from zero. Among the scenarios I contemplated for my path, none envisioned where I am right now.

A lot has changed in these ten years, in me and in the world. But one constant stayed with me day in and day out to keep biting me on occasion, and drawing blood when it did. It is that gnawing tear in my soul that begins with that tiny spot of self doubt, in turn festering into the unnerving, pull-the-rug-from-under-your-feet, self-shaking, earth-shattering loss of faith; it is that ugly demon crawling out from under the bed or out from some crevice to rear its hideous head of intimidation just when I need the most to be someone — or something.

In my pre-mom life when I was a world-trotting, high-shooting, wannabe super star, and seemingly becoming that idealized concept of self, I would always envision my struggles as a barbarian slouching toward my core, toward my “center that cannot hold,” to quote a sage. I would fight back. Sometimes with confidence that was strong and real, sometimes with an ersatz vigor that was fleeting. I would kick and drag my feet, struggling against the beast so intent on pulling me down into the depths of despair. 

But that struggle I came to know all too well would inevitably become a form of bon voyage ritual carrying me from the dock of reality on a boat embarking for a journey across that marsh the Greeks called the Styx, that liminal space between Earth and the Underworld where I would be thrust again to face the demons inside my head. 

When these high-pitched battles between insanity and reason ensued somewhere deep in my psyche, the deity of the Styx would relent only in exchange for a sacrifice torn from my spirit; the price was always a casualty if you will, that trauma of surrender. Usually the appeasement was a connection of some sort, a personal attachment, a cherished bit from the sum of self that would net me a life line that would keep me alive at the moment. But always, it was only a porous cork jacket whose utility to keep me afloat would ebb away.

People – I would think – are bound by the environment that they are in and are more often than not shackled by demons of the past. So “move forward!” I would tell myself, humans are only capable of a few meaningful relationships, and it is only natural that you tend to leave some people behind to make room for those who will come next. There is only so much space, after all, in that boat journeying across the Styx. 

Now that journey is diverted into that place I never anticipated. Today, I am a “mom” to a toddler who is nothing short of trying at times. And when she is not “trying,” she is on her high horse, waiting to conquer all. And my decade-ago self would not believe me were I to sit that earlier self down and explain that being a mother sometimes requires nerves of steel and a clarity of mind that would only be possible with some kind of device to erase all the past debris and fog on your mind on momentary demand. There is certainly no room to indulge that speck of ancient doubt that once was a frequent visitor. Babies, as I have come to know, despite their small size and fragility, can smell “doubt” on you in an instant and act upon it quickly. Such a remarkable talent for a human being who is so tiny and who needs to latch on and hold tight to stay alive.

The crowning finale to this conversation with my decade-old self, of course, is that I happened to become a mom to my high-spirited baby, for whom my love is bottomless but whose needs are limitless on even the best of days. It seems evident in this moment that my dreams of taking my cherub to the park once she is able to trot and toddle are vanished. Gone are the imagined days spent entirely outdoors, the making of new mom friends in whom to confide the difficulties and share the kinship that might last beyond this newborn stage. The pandemic – effective immediately – has extinguished these fanciful notions of imagined friends and an independent moppet whose slow crawls would become brisk runs behind a ball or a squirrel. All these dreams have been thrown away along with the dusty household items, postpartum two-size small clothes and a few pieces of old furniture – now a safety hazard – with a self-esteem that has been tried and shattered into pieces once again in the days and months that we have been locked in our tiny apartment in a city that has had more than its fair share of this global health crisis. I felt small and insignificant and I felt that I failed. I lamented the fact that my body is changed forever. And I kept hearing that Nick Cave song playing in my head over and over again:

“And we all rose from our wonder
We would never admit defeat
And we leaned out of the window
As the rain fell on the street”

Amidst it all however, the lesson this new self of mine longs to tell that vanished self of old is that a pandemic combined with a willful toddler has asserted the importance of permanence, the permanence of people in our lives, and the feelings for them, even when we have lost or forgotten about them somewhere along the way or traded them for a cork vest. 

The permanence of having to stay put in one particular role with the lately-ever-so-visible bags under my eyes — thanks to all those sleep-deprived nights and the wrinkles that I find to somehow resemble more and more the ones of my mother that I thought would never happen to me — has turned into a catharsis.

Motherhood – as difficult as it seems sometimes – can and will grow on you slowly even if you think at the outset that you are not cut out for this. And even though you can now find a million reasons to be reminded of what a pile of fault and guilt you are and have been, it is going to be OK. Just so long as you keep trying.

And the people that we have lost and that past life that we have yearned to bring back, will all return to hopefully find their way into this new life in ways both old and new, whether by staying within us in a hazy and beautiful memory, or by reincarnating themselves in new relationships. The partners that we fell in love with and then fell out, and then with whom we fell deeper in love again; the emotions that ran high with so many things better left unsaid but said anyhow, and so many things yet to be said; a love reborn in a stronger-than-ever fashion with the broken idealism of the past thrown into the rubbish bin next to the now-hazardous old furniture… 

For all this and for so much more, thank you my dear daughter. You have shaken my core yet stolen my heart. And not only that, you have done so amid the pandemic.

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