We are surrounded by unimaginable beauty, tucked inside an area of the Colorado Plateau gently carved by time, revealing layers of sandstone and shale woven through with threads of green: juniper, mountain shrubs, and Ponderosa pine. Massive caverns reveal themselves on all sides, and I’m feeling the breathtaking smallness of standing amid miles of relatively open, untouched earth. In front of my family and me, a series of walls and rooms emerge from the weather-worn cliffs, gone white and almost peach in this afternoon light. The connected structures, made of terra-cotta-colored bricks shaped by ancient hands, are known as the Cliff Palace—once a home to Ancient Puebloans. Please remember, it’s an honor to walk these grounds, the park ranger told us before we set off with the tour group. Enjoy your time here.
I’m feeling grateful to be here with my husband and teenage daughters. As our girls have gotten older, opportunities to share experiences like this have become increasingly rare. The girls will feel nourished, I hope, by the moments of connection and discovery a summer vacation like this can provide, and ready to take on another challenging year of high school.
I’m also worried. Violet—my youngest, a newly minted 15—is walking several feet ahead, head down, black hood pulled low over her face. She’s also wearing a mask, so I can’t see much of her face when she turns back—but I just know. I know.
I catch up with her, and it’s confirmed. She’s trying not to cry. She’s fidgeting with the strings on her hoodie, a sure sign that anxiety is getting the best of her. When she talks, she stutters, struggling to get her words out.
It’s always like this for her on vacations, especially when we’re this far from home, so I am unsurprised. Being plucked from her comfort zone, her routines, her cats—it’s hard. With her autism and OCD, each threaded with the anxiety that strengthens and binds them together, her brain can’t help but flash “danger” when she’s this far from everything familiar.
Today it’s the usual: the unknown of it all is thrumming through her, and it’s pulling her out of the moment. Today she is recognizing a “should be.” I should be having fun, she weeps when I pull her aside to chat, away from the rest of the touring group. Why am I not having fun? Also, today she wants to hurt herself. In fact, she confesses, she already has. She hit herself once on the head with the heel of her hand, hard, when no one was looking.
I say the words I am meant to say: Thank you for telling me. Are you okay? Are you safe now?
I say those things, and into my chest comes the curious feeling of something folding in on itself forever. A void that opens up in my heart and keeps going, where all the love, and all the sorrow, will live forever. I remind Violet that her brain, in its own way, is just trying to help her, warning her, albeit erroneously, that danger is imminent. It’s on high alert, screaming “unsafe” at her, even though everything is just fine.
She feels bad that this talk has pulled me away from experiencing the Cliff Palace, that I’m crouched in the dirt, having this discussion with her, while her dad and sister are standing with the tour group, listening to a park ranger talk about the dwellings. She is mad at herself for ruining the trip for me and worried she’ll ruin it for her dad, who has texted me to check on the situation twice, and her sister, who for now is wrapped up in the history all around us. I tell her she hasn’t ruined anything, that I’d rather have this talk with her, here in a beautiful location, than anywhere else, and that any aspect of her existence is always an honor to engage with, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts. I remind her that she is always worthy of my time and attention.
The chasm in my chest opens even wider, and I wish there was a way to show her: Here, look, I have all the love in the world for you. It’s right there, always.
She won’t let me touch her, of course, but I want to hug her close. The best I can do is offer her water and remind her that the only feeling she “should be” having is exactly the one she’s feeling, however complicated and uncomfortable it is.
I love you, I tell her.
Love you too, she says, voice low, head down.
On our hike back to the car, I think about the park ranger’s words: Enjoy your time here, she said, like a simple instruction. I think about what that means for Violet, for whom enjoyment is never straightforward or easy. I think about what it means for me in these moments, the ache in my chest growing wider, a desperate kind of love.
As we walk, I repeat in my head, as though I could give the words tangible shape and gift them to her: I love you, I love you, I love you. I will the words to imprint onto her back, to become part of her, a comfort she won’t receive any other way. I love you, embedded in her skin. I love you, singing in her blood.
Later, in the car, her body contorts into its usual pretzel shapes, a foot hooked up by the driver’s seat headrest, the other leg twisted impossibly beneath her, her body slumped into a comma over her phone, a pause in the syntax of the day. Violet’s ever-present hood covers her eyes, but the mask is gone, and her face is relaxed as she stares intently at her phone, swiping and tapping intermittently. I imagine that the process of disappearing into her screen is a kind of smoothing out for her, all the jumbled synapses ceasing their popping and fizzing. I know she is feeling something close to contentment now, but at this cost: absolute nothingness, numbness; untethered from the moment, she is somewhere else, where the jagged angles of the day can’t reach her.
You good? I offer a thumbs-up, our agreed-upon shorthand for a state-of-Violet check. She looks up, face unchanging, and she hesitates a beat before she returns the thumbs-up. Back into her phone she goes.
I want to pat her leg or tickle her outstretched foot, as I would have if she were a lot younger and her problems could be solved with a reassuring physical gesture, but of course I don’t. I love you. I shape the words again and send them out into the air, hoping she’ll breathe them in. I love you. I let her feel the nothing she needs to feel.
Violet would not like to be compared to a flower, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, somewhere in the middle of the Frank Turner concert in Albuquerque, the midpoint of our vacation—for Violet, the pinnacle. During “Haven’t Been Doing So Well,” she sings along, face upturned, joy blooming across her features. She is open in a way she never is. Her arms raise like praise and come back down again; she turns and twists her body; she shouts out lyrics about feeling trapped and anxious, and fighting to overcome it all, those emotions that drag us all down.
Maybe it’s better to compare her to a firework, the way her joy shines and sparks in the dark of the show when Frank Turner sings the opening lines of “Plain Sailing Weather,” her favorite. She screams out the classic concert “Whooo,” the universal crowd-speak of approval; she is connected to hundreds of people all at once, and she’s okay. Fully engaged, she sings along to the chorus, profanity and all—because curse words are not only okay at concerts, they belong here, they are catharsis here.
Or perhaps she is more of a lightning storm now, during “Non Serviam,” raging and flailing, not so much dancing as reacting to the push and pull of the beats and the relentless rhythm, a distillation of every brilliant spark of rage she never lets herself feel. Her whole body is engaged now, her emotions shifting with each new song, from exhilaration to triumph, to sadness and contemplation. She is alive, and she is feeling, and it is the best thing I have ever seen.
The truth is that Violet would not like to be any metaphor. She has only ever wanted—insisted upon—being herself. And in a moment of wild, delightful abandon like this, she is.
Once again, I find myself surrounded by unimaginable, breathtaking beauty. First that massive landscape, a towering layer cake of brown and cream and gold and green. Now, the best of humanity, people losing themselves in song, and my daughter allowing herself—for once, finally—to be swept up with them in a shared moment of connection.
Enjoy your time here, I think, and this time I’m not compelled to send my silent declaration of love toward Violet, because everything about this moment is saying it for me: the music, and the crowd, and the lights, and the joy. All the joy.
As we leave the venue, I give her the thumbs-up. She is sweaty, tired, euphoric. You okay? I ask, though I know that she is better than okay. She nods, returning the thumbs-up. Through her mask, I can tell that she is smiling.