It was mostly well hidden. It was in all the dark shadows and cobwebs that threatened to push me over the edge from neurotic to emotionally imbalanced. But every once in a while, it appeared, rising to the surface of my smiling face. It showed up when I lost something; it didn’t matter what it was or how insignificant. The fear of never finding it threw me into an inconsolable fit.
“It’s all right. We can always buy another one,” my mom would say in desperation. But I felt like I was spilling out of my seams.
When I got married and had babies, the fear seemed to subside. The constant parade of tasks washed away the immediacy of needing to know where everything was.
But then they grew into kids, and nothing stayed intact. Although it infuriated me, I knew that their need to understand how things worked required putting together and taking apart. It required a messy life full of broken toys. But it returned me to my own childhood, which did not allow for tantrums or spilled milk.
It’s only in having them that I felt what I missed.
I awoke one morning and stared into the toothpaste-dotted mirror. Worry painted my face and grew in lines like cracks in a sidewalk, swells under my eyes, and streaks of ivory in my black hair. As part of my pilgrimage to being a mother, I had developed two chronic illnesses, along with a new edge to my voice and a permanent furrow.
When my grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she had a habit of standing on the linoleum floor in front of her dresser, peering into the mirror. “I’m so old!” she would say. But not in a self-deprecating way; she really didn’t remember all the years that had accumulated into her present life. In her mind, she was still that young girl with long braids.
“Where is it?” I ask.
I upturn baskets, empty bags into bags and flip through the mountain of papers covering my desk.
“We are not going anywhere until we find it,” I tell my husband and kids.
I still don’t remember what it is. I know the feeling though. I sometimes go online in search of what’s been lost. And when I can’t find it, I feel its emptiness like black tar in a place where the light never filters in.
Once in a while, when the kids are asleep and I watch that heavenly way their bellies rise and fall, I have the courage to visit that place.
Observing my own children—their constant questions, their obsessive exploration—and not just watching them passively, but being present with them on the floor, I grew haunted by the ghosts of uninterested adults and busy single parents. Not that my childhood freedom to bike around the block or sink into hours of unintended play wasn’t liberating. But engagement, having someone to reflect back an experience, is a kind of mirror that provides validation that you exist, that your voice is heard, and that your childish feelings matter.
In school, grades gave me a sense of what I wasn’t getting at home. When I grew up and got married, that need spread to other things. Organized rooms with books placed side by side, the right frames, beautiful decor, and words that accurately and poetically described an experience—these were new mirrors. They were tangible reminders that I existed, that memory can be gaslighted, but physical things, including words on a page, can be experienced as incontrovertibly real.
As a counseling psychology student, I was forced to pay attention to those unconscious feelings, those places where I stored the baggage of neglect. I felt that I had addressed my feeling of inexistence. But every once in a while, when I’m not paying attention, it slithers back to the surface.
I’m reminded of that void every time an earring is misplaced or a LEGO piece is lost. It’s the missing piece in Shel Silverstein’s book of the same name.
It’s the image my grandmother didn’t see when she looked in the mirror and I couldn’t find when I peered into my own reflection.
As I write this, the wind is roaring behind me. Hurricane Lane is in Hawaii. We’re all hoping its visit will be short and its consequences minor. But unlike my neighbors who have boarded up their houses or friends who have prepared with bottled water and canned goods, my kids and I are playing ball and doing the limbo with painter’s tape.
Moments like these soothe the ache of the black hole. When I run in the rain with my sons, I believe in the magic of warm blankets, deep mysterious caves like that kind we walked through on the island of Kauai, and freshly peeled oranges.
Other times, I need to reconnect with the lost part of myself, by myself.
Later, “What are you doing?” my older son asks for the second time.
“I’m writing,” I tell him and swat his hand away from my laptop.
The wind blowing my hair against my neck and the soothing soundtrack of the keys as I type make the perfect conditions for me to access my own story. The story is not a perfect patch, but a bridge.
When I wake the next day, the hurricane has eased from category 4 to tropical storm. My illnesses are mostly manageable, and with their father home, the kids seem to need me less. In that glorious idle minute, so elusive for a parent, I discover the missing piece.
Inside that sacred space of stillness is a reconnection with myself and to my writing.
I started writing these pieces of prose a few years ago when my kids were babies and I was starved of food, sleep and time for myself. I was like the wind in the hurricane, a force in the household that could be swept away into the hole of the unknown at any moment.
It took many years for me to unwrap the truth because mothering to martyrdom wasn’t just socially accepted, it was expected by my family, by the people who criticize my parenting skills and my crying children in Walmart and Costco and at the library. My missing piece is every mother’s missing piece, the part of us we deny and neglect, our innate desire to nourish the creative self.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into the vortex of motherhood. Children’s needs are insatiable and if we don’t realize that and make time to meet our own thirsts, we will search endlessly for something else to fill the void. During those moments of emptiness when nothing could placate me—not shopping, chocolate or alcohol, when not even my children could shake me out of that relentless emptiness—I learned that if I went to my laptop I would return with a sense of grounding. It was what I needed to catalog my past experience and weave my way back to this world.
Hurricanes have threatened us many times, one just a few weeks ago. This time, we stored water bottles, filled our gas tanks, and watched the news. We also played in the rain. We waited for the oncoming storm that never came.
Time brings wisdom and the courage to face the things that scare us. More and more, I feel prepared. I’m no longer walking blindly into the storm.
The things overturned around me, the broken toys, the crumb-filled dining room floor, the world and all its raging destruction, are now background noise to the story I’m writing. The story, fiction or nonfiction, anchors me in my core self and in truth that can’t be whisked away by any storm. This is it.
My kids don’t have to ask me anymore. When my glasses are reflecting the glare of the laptop screen, they know mommy can’t be disturbed. That doesn’t mean they don’t try. But I understand the importance of this idle time, and more and more, they do too. Time with my kids can be freeing now, but time with my writing isn’t negotiable.
Writing, I’ve discovered, makes sense of brokenness. From there, I can be empty and whole, lost and found, wise and still learning. On a good day when the writing flows, I understand the pages missing from my early years or, at least, I can accept their absence. When the weight threatens to drown me, writing about the life I missed and the one that’s in front of me are the life rafts that keep me afloat.