Today I am 41.
When I was 13, I couldn’t imagine being alive at 15. I couldn’t imagine being alive at 18. Or 20. Or even 41. It’s not that it seemed so far away, or so OLD, but it just seemed impossible.
Oh sure, it seems a little silly now. But I honestly thought that the agony of the teenage years would kill me. I’m talking about that gut-wrenching, soul-twisting self-hatred and doubt that tears us to pieces when we’re too young and inexperienced to know that life is more than the things that happen to us. When we’re young, we exist in the moment, because it’s all we really know – and for me, I started to believe that there was no existence beyond the hell of teenage years – I would simply drop dead from the agony of it all. Probably in homeroom.
Things changed when I went away for college — I was handed that proverbial blank canvas on which to create a new life. So I decorated it with everything I wanted. And long story short, that is largely why I have the life I do today. And I am grateful for every minute of it.
I am still learning to be patient, and the greatest lesson of all happened when I had my first child. It’s not what you think, either.
When I was 2 years old, I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The next 16 years were filled with a lot of pain: medications, hospital visits, special doctors, braces and splints, more medications. Sitting on the sidelines during gym class – and hundreds of other activities my peers enjoyed without me. The pain that filled my joints, twisted my hands and feet, and throbbed throughout my body was accompanied by the relentless emotional turmoil of feeling different, KNOWING I was different, being laughed at or teased, and utterly hating myself for it. And always, ALWAYS wondering, as children do- “Why ME?”
The question was unanswered, and eventually I stopped asking it. I even stopped caring, when the arthritis had calmed down enough in my 20s to be declared in remission.
My first daughter was born when I was 36 years old. And along with her entry came the greatest clarity of my life – a double gift. Because you see, my daughter has a physical difference. It’s nothing that threatens her health or mental capacities in any way, but she will have it for her entire life. Regardless of what my husband and I hope, it will always be the first thing people notice about her. When we’re long gone, and she is an old woman, it will still be the feature that others use to define her.
In the first hour I held her, I realized the answer to my long-forgotten question, the one that still whispered deep inside me.
I finally understood…. “Why?”
The pain of my own childhood prepared me for her. My childhood had been spent with medical treatments and specialists — as hers will. I knew what it was like to look different, to always be different, to be questioned about it — as she will. I will never claim to know exactly what she is going through — but if she ever feels alone, or ashamed, or hurt — if she ever asks, “Why ME?” I can sit beside her and help her carry those feelings.
41 years ago, I arrived. But 5 years ago, I figured out why I was given that twisted and painful path to walk as a child.
Today is another happy birthday, and they do keep getting better, because I keep painting that canvas. I am strong for both of my daughters, I am strong because of my husband, and I am strong because life is NOT what happens to me. It is exactly what I make of it.
What have you made of your life? And what have you made it for someone else? I would love to know.