hamster, interrupted.

In the winter of 2007 I worked for an eccentric entrepreneur in Brooklyn. He had a window and door business that was faltering while he devoted all his resources to inventing a series of ingredients to create a fireproof elevator. On my first day, his CFO bought me coffee and told me they couldn’t afford to pay me. Yet they did find enough money to pay me, weekly, in cash. Among other things I was tasked with wading through a year and half’s worth of paperwork for unpaid city, state and federal taxes.

There was a hamster in a little plastic cage near my desk that was the fire test hamster. They’d put him in a box lined with the fireproof material they were developing and film him while holding a blow torch to the box. I felt about as secure as that hamster. It had taken me months to find someone who would hire me, a nanny in New Jersey with little work experience. I hated the idea of having to move back to Oregon. Yet I was working for a farting little sexual harasser who hardly seemed charismatic, confidence-inspiring or sane enough to get the funding it would take to keep us all employed.

My mom, on the phone from Oregon, gently suggested, “What if you. . . put your worries in a box? Just for a month.” I don’t remember if she meant literally or metaphorically but the phrase “put your worries in a box” stuck in my head. I wrote every single thing I was afraid of on a piece of paper, put the piece of paper in a box, and left the box in my chilly Hoboken windowsill.

To my surprise, it worked. Writing down my fears let me forget them. I still wound up taking another job, but I had just enough calmness to do so because my worries were in that box.

For the past several months I’ve had fears about my parents’ relationship that are based on events I wrote about quite a bit on this blog. They’ve been back together now for three years, and for two years I’ve been a part of their together-life. You’d think I’d feel pretty secure about our family unit. But for some reason, fear has snowballed.

Because I’m an intuitive person, it’s taken me a long time to realize that these feelings may not be hunches. They may just be fear. Groundless, unsubstantiated, pointless fear.

Last week on Valentine’s Day my good friend Kirby texted me. I was eating dinner, feeling calm about being alone on this particular day. But the minute he texted, I realized I was not okay. My response to him was innocuous but he knows me so well that he knew I was melting down before the second tear had fallen. He called me, assuring me that I’m like a bundt cake in the oven, just not done yet.

“It’s not me,” I cried. “It’s my parents.”

I’ve known him for a year and a half and had never told him the complete sequence of events that is documented here for any stranger to read: being in England and in love when I find out my parents’ marriage has collapsed. Having to fly home to help my grief-stricken mom. My relationship with my dad crumbling to nonexistence. Having to let go of the man in England. A year in Buffalo with my mom and brother trekking through the snow, drinking brass monkeys, watching “Lost” and wondering what the hell was going on.

I don’t talk about it now because it’s exhausting and sad and a long story and it shouldn’t matter anymore. Besides, no one in the Northwest knows what a brass monkey is.

I realized while talking to Kirby that night that it does still matter. I’ve been holding my breath for three years. I’ve dated and said I love you and been held and had my heart broken but nothing, no one, was going to keep me. No one. Ironically, it hasn’t been fear that I might be cheated on. I’m just afraid that I’ll be with “the one” when my parents turn everything upside down, including whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m with and whatever love I’m in.

The thing about fear, and I was just ranting to my cousin about this the other day, is that we think we should fear the things we know about. For instance if you hear about a plane crash, you may develop a fear of flying. But you didn’t fear flying before the plane crash and you still survived your last flight. Were you safe then because you didn’t know planes could crash? No. You were safe then for the same reason you’d be safe flying now–planes can crash, but most of the time they don’t.

It’s very difficult to live with the idea that the monsters you know about, and the ones you don’t, are equally dangerous to you. Yet coming to terms with that is freeing because you realize there’s no point in fearing either type of monster anymore. In effect all the worries go in the box because they’re equally pointless.

When all this happened back in 2008 I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was earning seventy pounds a week looking after toddlers (who were adorable) riding a bus every weekend to meet a man I could only have spent a few more months with, anyway. I know, rationally, that my choices landed me in Buffalo as much as my parents’ choices did. I know that what happened then would not happen now. I’m living a stable life, and my parents are more honest with each other and with themselves.

It’s just that now I know about a type of monster I hadn’t met before. The better my life gets, the more I assume that monster will pop out again to shock me.

Fear is talented, and clever, and tricky. It can change shape, it can hide whistling in the corner, and it can kill you. “Because you’re going to die,” my therapist said the other day, causing a waterfall of tears. He meant, life is short. But I heard it in the hollow places in my heart: because life like this is death.

Refusing to let my emotional life move forward, refusing to love someone for fear I’ll be interrupted? Stupid, sad way to live. And when you compare it to what other people go through every day, it’s a weak way to live.

Giving in to fear is weak. But writing this makes me realize what it will take to put it away in that box. People who care about me keep assuring me that my parents will be fine and that even if they’re not, it won’t alter my life the way it did. Those sorts of sentences go in one ear and out the other. I should have told them what I once told a boyfriend: never tell a depressive that it’s all going to be okay. I have to be able to accept the worst case scenario.

There is always something that could turn my life upside down. Or yours. Yet we go on. Why? Not because we forget that it could all go to hell in a second.

We keep going because it’s still all worth it. Even coming home from my underpaid job at a nonprofit in a dimly lit room in downtown Buffalo to find my mom sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke at our little kitchen table crying because she had just realized something new about my dad. . . even as sad for her I as I was, and as confused as I was about the crazy path my life had taken, and as bad as I felt for my brother having to share in our emotion-drenched days, we were together. And we still are. Somehow, after England and Buffalo and New York and Toronto and all the crazy places we cast ourselves, and all the mean emails, and all the confusion, and all the tears, we’re all (mostly, awaiting my brother and his girlfriend in Boston) here. Stronger. Happier. Closer.

I don’t know how. It’s the definition of counter-intuitive. But we are: stronger, happier and closer.

I am stronger and happier. It made me a person I liked instead of a person I considered weak.

As much as we try to avoid what scares us to death, we get out of bed each day so that one of those monsters can leap out of the closet and yell, “Hey! You’re going to die! In the grossest, most painful way!”

We know that every time we face one of those bad boys down, life tastes that much sweeter.

I’m not going to get to know someone telling myself the entire time that it will all be fine. I’m going to do it fully aware that it could all go totally and hideously wrong and adultery and insults and theft and disease and freak snowstorms and really disappointing Carrie Underwood songs could all ensue.

Hell will break loose.

Thusly, like that hamster, do I walk into the fire with a silky coat and a happy step. Because, hey. Maybe what emerges really will be fireproof.

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