Unwittingly, my husband uncovered some treasures yesterday that were stored in a forgotten tote. I was shocked to see my diaries from teenhood laying on the table. How surprising that they resurfaced! I believed I’d slipped them unceremoniously into the trash years ago. Yet there they were in all their written vulnerability from a whole other lifetime ago. I was a different person then, living 3,000 miles from what is now my home. I knew I’d risk raising old wounds by reading these journals again, yet how could I not?
There were so many layers to who I was at ages sixteen through eighteen. The event that forever changed me was my mother’s death exactly one week and one day after my sixteenth birthday. It was suddenly just my father, nearing 70 and ravished with emphysema and congestive heart failure, and myself left to navigate a new world together.
Already filled with the normal self loathing of a teenager, I both longed for an escape from excessive worry about my father and dreaded craving freedom at the same time: a freedom that would either mean acting like a normal teenager and turning my back on Dad or death for him. So while I desperately wanted a boyfriend, I put off any ideas of having that sort of social life because it would mean leaving my father alone. I understand that today. I had no choice but to love and protect this dear old man. We had a rough beginning I now see, and to be sure there were hard bumps along the way, but we loved each other, and I’m forever grateful I had those five extra special years with him.
I hated myself then. It was very ugly reading words written from the “teen me” point of view. At 118 lbs I thought I was fat! Oh dear God if only I could have prevented myself from getting on that dieting roller coaster. I took up smoking and when I quit I then turned to food. I know I was stuffing down the absolute unbearable grief of losing my mother as well as the friends who weren’t there for me anymore.
But there’s a good side to all this and I see it so clearly as an adult. I was a fighter, and I was strong Recognizing that I sat on the outer fringes of my childhood friendship circle, I spent a little more than a year distancing myself rather than be a clinging fool. One day on a mile walk home from the NYC bus stop, I simply went straight when they veered right, and I never looked back. That took courage because inside I was crying out for the nurturing friendships I so desperately needed. But the girls I hung around with were at a different level than myself. They were free to live normal teenage lives where their biggest concerns might be a big pimple or struggling to raise a gradepoint or trying to attract a cute boy’s attention. My struggles included those and so much more: what to cook for dinner, cleaning the house, washing clothes and bedding, doing yardwork, and freezing in place at night when Dad had a coughing fit as I desparately waited for him to catch his breath again.
So in reality, how could I expect these friends to relate to what I was going through? I see why I became a fringe friend then. Still, I expected more from the girl I grew up with and who was my bestie for twelve years. Ultimately, when she wasn’t “there” for me, I felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth hard and thrown in the gutter. That’s the way it was, however, and rather than accept a role as number five in the core group, I stood up for myself and stood alone.
It was quite terrifying to suddenly Be All Alone when senior year started. Yet I slowly made new friends, and I ended up with good grades and managed a household and caretaking. I’m proud that I dared to go the road alone.
I became the “core me” in those few years. Not all my decisions were bright such as smoking weed and getting so spaced that I thought I was walking backward in the hall. To this day, I’m astounded that I achieved a 95 on my Environmental Studies class. The strict Brother in his brown Franciscan robe, had no clue I was stoned out of my mind. I had to reread the questions over and over, but I finished the test!
At least I had some rebellion in me. I never got reckless. I kept fighting my way through difficult obstacles. Those days of learning how to be an adult at my young age gave me the foundation for the future. That girl was smart and powerful, only she didn’t know it then. It felt good to read the writings of my past and be able to say, “I did pretty damned good after all”.