At the park with my five year-old, I share a smile with a Mom sitting next to me on the curb of the sand box. We start chatting about our kids, idly discussing sleep patterns or kindergarten readiness. I motion towards the school down the street and say we’ll probably send our daughter to it. Her brother went to middle school there and it was nice to have him right in the neighborhood. I’m looking forward to that again.
She blinks in surprise when I mention their age difference. Eleven years is quite a spread I’m reminded, as if I don’t know this every single second of the day. Dropping one off at preschool and being home to talk with the high-schooler over his off campus lunch is pretty much the goings on of my weekdays. I am never blissfully unaware of just how different my children’s ages are, constantly negotiating the gulfs between my nearly adult son and not-yet school aged daughter.
The next question comes right on schedule.
“Did you plan it that way?” she asks. Did you do this thing on purpose?
“They have different dads,” I mention. “And my son was five when my husband and I started dating. Then we lost one in between him our daughter,” I say the last part quietly, bending my head towards her just a little.
Of course I can’t be sure of what that other mother thinks of my statement, but an awkwardly telling silence stretches between us. I am accustomed to that by now. Probably I shouldn’t say these things at the park with our daughters playing less than ten feet away from us, but the truth slips out without hesitation. I shrug, having given up on shielding strangers from answers to inquiries that are, somehow, strangely commonplace.
I used to spend hours puzzling over reactions I’d get to questions like these, worrying myself into not speaking to anyone at all. My anxiety brain loved this, taking over all command until I avoided even looking at anyone I didn’t already know. Sometimes, even avoiding those I did. Perpetually worried about the cache of so-called “inappropriate” things my brain reaches for during conversation, talking to people became exhausting. Feeling lonely seemed more survivable than embarrassing myself.
But it actually isn’t. Not for very long.
Over and over again I’ve pushed aside my deep fear of ostracism and chatted up all sorts of strangers. Small talk never remains small, and I only have so many ways of shrugging off questions that wind up being uncomfortably revealing.
Are your parents in town? No, they’re both dead.
Why would you ever move away from somewhere like Hawaiʻi? My grandmother died and I straight up ran away from home, I was so devastated.
Do you like living in Seattle? Mostly I love it, but I get terrible seasonal depression in the winters. I’m miserable for at least five months out of the year.
Do you ever think about moving back home? Oh, all the time. Every single day, but the economy is really struggling, mostly because tourism is a low-wage industry. My husband can’t get job in his field for more than a third of what he’s making now, and living expenses are higher than they are here. There’s a really high rate of Hawai’i locals moving away because of the cost of living.
These are honest answers to what are actually deeply personal questions, and they’re tough for me of course. The truth is often tough. But also it is not. It is just the truth, facts of a life gone on long enough to see a lot of change. A lot of heartache, to be sure, but also a lot of joy. It just so happens that they’re all mixed up in the same mixed-up person. I don’t know how to compartmentalize, putting joy in this corner, sequestering heartache to another. And really, I don’t know why I would want to. Why would I want to only feel happiness by itself, without the tint of sorrowful remembrance there to turn it all into a river of gratitude? And why, I mean why would I ever want to feel pure heartache and loss isolated from the precious gift of joy that simultaneously makes the ache deeper because I know what I’ve lost, but adds the weary comfort of having had anything at all?
Why would I not want to hold all of it, everything, in my hands?
I know, of course, that my shoulder-shrug truthfulness isn’t really what people are looking for in response to small talk made at the edge of a playground sand box. I know I risk touching a thread of heartbreak, of panic, of guilt, deeply imbedded in another human being whenever honesty falls from my lips. I risk, for lack of a better term, triggering a stranger in the middle of the park.
And that, of course, is why I’ve spent so much time locking my own triggers away, keeping quiet and stoic with tears and anguish shoved as deep down as I could manage. That is why I’ve tried keeping myself locked up inside. I’ve never been able to manage it for long, though. It always comes out, no matter how hard I try.
And I don’t only get pained, uncomfortable looks, you know. I don’t only get avoided or left. I’ve also received empathy, solidarity in what I used to think were the most unlikely of places. I make the most honest of friends. Friends who invite me to share their honesty because maybe they feel like they can. Friends who ask me more questions, and answer mine as we watch our children play.
So do you think you’re done now? Definitely. I used to be really sad about that and I still regret not having as big a family as I wanted, but I look at my kids and they’re just so perfect, you know? I’m really very lucky.
What do you miss most about Hawaiʻi? My cousins. Without them it’s just a place.
Do you regret moving away? Mostly no. I’ll always miss it, but moving started as an adventure and turned into a pretty great life. Seattle is beautiful and I’ve made some really great friends.
It’s tough to be truthful with new people, sometimes. They rarely expect it. But I only have two settings: honest or silent, and I know the painful isolation that lives inside my anxious quiet. The truth can be painful too, of course, but at least it comes with the hope of acceptance, which is all I’ve ever wanted.
Strangers are going to keep asking me personal questions, and I’m going to keep answering them. Sometimes it’ll go better than others. Sometimes it might lead to tears. But I figure if someone really wants to ask me if I meant to have my children when I did, they can deal with me answering honestly, even if means my honesty was the last thing they wanted to hear. And if they didn’t want to hear it, well. I’m not the one who asked the question in the first place. I’m just the one who took a chance on telling the truth.
image by Alan Levine, via Wikimedia Commons