Struggling, But Why?
Life inside my head
Ruby (right) and the author (below) “are nothing alike,” says Peyton, “but watching her grow up still brings back memories.”
I am struggling a little bit lately. Not in my actual day-to-day life – I’m not failing at work or neglecting my family. I am still making breakfasts and pouring milk and wiping noses and folding clothes and kissing my husband and inserting and deleting commas as needed on a professional basis; I’m still completely functional and, by and large, happy. But I live so much in my head, and there, to some extent, I’m struggling lately.
Writing is how I process the world around me, and even if I don’t actually typeset it, I’m writing a narrative in my brain pretty much all the time. And the significant events, especially the tragic ones, well, I write about those the most because I need to make sense of them the most.
If you met me casually, at a party or a PTA meeting, I wouldn’t mention my dead siblings or my miscarriage or my divorce. I would tell you that I was an only child (because I really was raised that way); that I have two incredible daughters and a terrific stepson (because I do); that my husband is great and my ex-husband and I are friendly (because he is and we are). I wouldn’t lie, in other words, but I would give you the easy-listening version of the truth. No one wants to be burdened with other people’s complicated lives in social situations; I know that.
And no one wants to read about it all the time either. When I was in a writing class in college, I wrote something about my brother’s death, and the professor made a big deal about it, about how good it was, how brave, how honest. As we walked out of the classroom, my biggest rival muttered just loud enough for me to hear, “Ugh, I wish I had a dead brother.” I felt stung, largely because she was right. Writing about my brother’s death was necessary for me; it was therapeutic; but it was also, at times, just so easy. It was rich material, and I just kept going back to the well.
Ever since that day, I have tried to be more conscious of trotting out my “dead brother” (and now my dead sister) whenever I need something to write about. I still write about it – because I have to – but I try not to do it in really attenuated ways.
All that said, however, I am finding myself, 25 years out, still struggling with the loss of my brother at such a young age and still writing about it. I thought the last real milestone would be when I turned 29, the age my brother was when he died, but no.
Ruby is now 7, and if anything, that is affecting me even more – for several reasons. Seven was such a big year for me, the clear before-and-after line in my childhood, and I sometimes have to remind myself that I was capable of very big feelings and very complex thoughts at that age – and thus Ruby is, too. As a mom, I want to see 7 as a simple age, her problems as small and easy to fix, but I can recall, so clearly, what it felt like to be 7, and it definitely didn’t feel simple.
Then, too, on a completely immature level, watching Ruby makes me feel sorry for my 7-year-old self. She was recently around a friend of mine who had had too much to drink, and she was rightfully bewildered. By the time I was 7 I was well beyond bewilderment. I knew exactly what was going on when my brother was drunk, and it made me furious; I also had some idea in my head, which I kept secret from everyone, that maybe I and I alone could fix him. Remembering all of that makes me sad for 7-year-old me, makes me want to go back now and whisper, “You can’t fix it; no one can.” Other people would have told me just that, had I shared my secret conviction with them – but I didn’t. It also makes me wonder how many secrets Ruby might have hugged close to her heart, how much responsibility she might be putting on herself. And it’s a reminder of just how much of age 7 still really is firmly in the realm of magical thinking.
It all hit home recently after her teacher died. Ruby suddenly was scared to be alone in her bedroom, in the bathroom, on the porch.
“What is going on?” I asked her, annoyed. “You are 7 years old, Ruby Grace! What are you so afraid of all of a sudden?!”
“Mrs. Foxworth,” she whispered.
“Mrs. Foxworth?” I said. “What? Why? I understand being sad, Ru, but scared? Why?”
And then it hit me. It came rushing back to me in absolute vivid color. “Oh,” I said quietly. “Oh. Are you … Ruby, are you scared of her ghost? That she’s going to come and take you back with her to heaven?”
She nodded at me, her eyes huge and greeny-gray. And I remembered the chaotic days after my brother’s death, remembered that fear, as I hovered near my mom at all times, that if I stepped out of her sight my brother’s spirit might somehow come and take me away. After all, everyone said I was his favorite thing in the world. I knew, even at age 7, that it was silly; I don’t think I ever told my mom or anyone else. But I believed it anyway, in some way I couldn’t articulate and didn’t want to admit.
As it all came back to me, I stopped yelling, stopped being annoyed, and knelt down and gave Ruby a hug – and not to get too hokey or new-agey, but it felt a bit like giving my 7-year-old self a hug, too.
So I’m struggling these days, a little bit, but the struggle is part of the healing, and the healing is ongoing.
Writing is therapy for me in many ways, but to be perfectly honest, so is parenting.