The Light In Dark Places: On The Other Side Of Suffering

Sometimes we can answer the changes we have no control over with changes we make deliberately.

I realized you could not have one without the other, that this great capacity to love and be happy can be experienced only with this great risk of having happiness taken from you—to tremble, always, on the edge of loss. –Emily Rapp, The Still Point of the Turning World

I experienced my first depressive episode when I was 12 years old. My closest friend and sometimes-boyfriend, John, moved away halfway through seventh grade when his father’s job at IBM was transferred to Connecticut. It was 1994, the beginning of the end of IBM’s near-monopolization of Endicott, New York, my hometown, where the company was founded in 1906. As IBM sold itself to outside interest, layoffs shook hundreds of families and destabilized the local economy so profoundly that Endicott has never fully recovered. Even in junior high, I understood the paradigm shift.

I also missed John. As far as first loves go, he was tops, a person whose kindness calibrated me. That’s a sentimental statement, but I mean it: In the seventh grade, I loved a boy as deeply as I knew how to love anyone, and it made me a better person. It’s why I know not to dismiss the feelings of adolescents.

My mother knew this, too. She knew that John’s absence—and the dread it had installed in me—pained me, made my body heavy, made me unable to see my friends, made me unable to commit beyond just passing my classes at school. My mother was a single mother who rented out half of our duplex to another family in order to pay the mortgage. We had no real savings except my college fund. This was back when you paid for long-distance phone calls, and I regularly racked up hundred-dollar phone bills calling John in Connecticut. It was untenable for our monthly finances, but my mother was also concerned about my well-being.

So she made a radical decision to spend more money. She signed me up for horseback riding lessons.

I’d been begging for years, but horseback riding is about the most expensive hobby you can indulge for your kid next to, say, downhill skiing. Boots, helmet, crop, jodhpurs, plus the lessons themselves. We found the most affordable stable we could, and bought the bare minimum of gear, much of it secondhand, for me to ride an elderly lesson horse once a week. We also made a deal: There was zero chance my mother would ever buy me a horse, so I was not to even ask.

What I admire most about my mother is her firm belief that people should change their minds. The short version of the story is that, a year after I began lessons, we both fell hard for a 23-year-old former racehorse and broodmare named Fancy, and to stop her owner from selling her to the glue factory, we liquidated my college fund to buy her.

Bear with me: This is not an essay about horses.

People thought my mother was crazy for taking such a huge financial risk, and for doing something practically unspeakable by spending my college fund. College funds are sacred. Mine was so tiny—only a couple thousand dollars—that it would hardly have offset the cost for even a year at a state university, but still, it was symbolic of my future and the good parenting that would lead to it. And a horse? A horse is a fairy tale.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Clean stalls on a frigid Sunday morning after church, and the fantasy quickly cracks. No matter. There was probably no kid in my entire school who spent as much time with her mother as I did in my early teens, improvising a life we had no right to, making decisions every accountant on the planet would advise against, and I know with certainty that neither of us are sorry we did it. Horses changed us.

(Also, I did go college. I’m now a college professor.)

This semester, I’m teaching a nonfiction workshop that includes several graduating seniors. It has been wonderful and interesting to read their work at what they well know (because people constantly remind them) is a crucial moment in their lives. The essays they’re writing reflect the ambivalence about change that nearly all of us have—some write from a place of anticipated opportunity, others from dreadful anxiety, and some from the questions about when, really, we become adults. Is it when we pay our own rent? Get our first job? Get married? Buy a house? Have a baby?

I try hard to focus on their craft, and not patronize these students in my feedback with my “perspective.” At 22, I also thought my life was entirely my responsibility, unconsciously subscribing to the bootstrap myth I feel very differently about now that I’m 33.

Some change, like buying a horse, happens of our own making. Other change, like a best friend moving away, just happens. Three months after I turned 30, my father died quickly of advanced renal cell cancer nobody, including him, knew he had. Losing my father, whom I adored, was one of the things I’d most feared growing up. And the pain was, and is, just as you’d imagine it, which is to say, everything I’ve experienced since has come with an ache, but three years later, I recognize grief as one of the most instructive experiences of my life. I learned how to manage an estate. I learned what it feels like to hold human ashes in my hands. I learned that there’s a clear thinker inside of me—lifelong and celebrated worrier—a sort of pilot light that ignites for ambulance rides and power of attorney and the donation of my father’s eyes. I learned that there is so much about death and dying that we don’t talk about, and that I’m no longer interested in avoidance, no longer capable of saying I can’t imagine to those who are suffering. I believe in your suffering.

It has become a set of contradictory truths that I wish my dad could know who I am now—flawed, but dedicated mother, serious writer, a person who has moved four times across the country for work, a person with greater empathy in some areas and lesser in others, a person who can file corporate income taxes and fire lawyers and endure labor for 40 hours—at the same time that I know I’d never be this person had he not died.

Technically, I’m a Millennial (born in ’82), and my generation has been waiting longer to do stuff. A close friend told me that he could never have a child before owning a house, which I took to mean that property ownership represented a certain level of stability he needed before taking on the responsibility of parenthood. I get that. My cousin’s wife pulled me aside on my 30th birthday, just weeks before my dad’s cancer diagnosis, and asked if I would ever consider a career change so I could more easily afford to have children (I was an adjunct professor at the time). I got that, too.

I worry, though, that a generation paying the price for the risky investments of previous generations is now swinging to the extreme end of risk aversion.

It’s not an accident that I was both one of the first of my friends to lose a parent and one of the first to have a baby. That’s because the two events are linked. Much like my friend moving away and my mother’s decision to buy a horse, sometimes we can answer the changes we have no control over with changes we make deliberately.

My father died at 63 years old, which made my 30 years feel significant. I contemplated a number of things I could do—apply for a job in Tehran teaching English as a second language, train for a marathon (OK, a half-marathon), have an affair. But I knew by then that parenthood was an experience I wanted before I died, so I figured I might want to get moving on that first.

My husband and I still don’t own a house. In savings, we have…well, bupkis. But what we do have is clarity.

One of the things my graduating students worry about is the limiting effect of making choices. They understand that our choices become parameters. They’re not wrong about this, but what they don’t yet know is that limits teach us just how much we can live without. There is still a good life to be had in rented apartments, or without a parent, or as a parent. There are far more specific opportunities inside the parameters our choices set for us—what we can be, what we can make—and relief in the clarity those parameters bring to our priorities.

“The doorway of suffering is sometimes how we enter new worlds,” writes my friend Heather Kirn Lanier, on her special needs parenting blog, Star in Her Eye. “We walk through to the other side, freed of something we’d once thought we’d needed in order to be happy. We are newly light in this new land, unburdened.”

After we bought Fancy, my mother and I never again discussed taking a vacation because it wasn’t an option. We did, however, discuss how we would make Fancy’s remaining years as comfortable and happy as possible, and such decisions resonated years later when my father became terminally ill, and they resonate now as I parent my 2-year-old daughter.

Putting yourself in the way of certain suffering, or the chance of it—like buying a horse in her final years, or having a baby when you’re not even in a permanent residence—isn’t the path to security. I’m actually speaking from a place of enormous privilege here because I’ve got enough employment with enough health insurance to decide it’s OK to have a child as a renting adult with no savings.

I also know this: There is no path to security. Your parents will (probably, if all goes well) die before you. Your job could be sent overseas, or to Connecticut. Your body, if you’re lucky, will age and transform. Your hometown may have to diversify its economy so that a single corporation will never again hold so much power. Stasis isn’t an option for any living thing, not a person, not a community, not a nation.

Pragmatism is the philosophy of my generation, and I respect that it’s thinking in terms of sustainability. And yet, we’re not promised anything, and we’re especially not promised years on our lives. Loving a boy and a horse both assured to leave me, watching my father die and then giving up more of him, fearing daily for my daughter’s heart and body, so fragile—yes, these things are crushing. They are the other side of my life’s greatest privileges.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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