I have always been a perfectionist. In school, I strived for a 4.0 G.P.A, perfect attendance, and immaculately curled hair.
I believed if I worked hard enough, and worried in equal measure, I could bend the universe to my wishes of having a high paying job, an enviable house, an adoring husband, and neatly dressed children who sat straight backed in their classes, emblematic of their high functioning mother.
I graduated with honors. I married my college sweetheart. I landed my first full-time teaching job. I published my first piece of writing. I was invited to speak at women’s conferences. I was my dream fleshed out.
The first sign of any chink in the armor came when I tried to get pregnant. Five miscarriages later, I sat in a doctor’s office and they told me that I would never be a mother by traditional methods. I adopted my son later that year, and I gave birth to my daughter in quick succession. Suddenly, I had everything I desired. And yet, I was miserable. Divorce followed.
I was suddenly parenting on my own, paying bills, and trying to remember what day to put out the garbage, forgetting to sign the permission slips, and heaving great sighs each morning as I attempted, desperately, to run a brush through the tangled knots of my daughter’s hair. My own head went reckless and unattended.
I struggled with this for a long-time. Suddenly, I was just getting by, rather than excelling in my usual fashion. Something had to give. What? I couldn’t quit my job, or stop feeding and caring for my children. I had to pay my bills, and I had to maintain the household. But, the thing that was negotiable was the way I felt about these activities, about myself, and the amount of pressure and worry I placed on myself in my own day-to-day functioning.
I had to learn to let go. This happened gradually. At first, I fought against my ingrained need to be perfect. I was slow to relinquish control. I tread with tiny steps, letting my daughter brush her own hair, even if it meant her part was never perfect, letting the children buy lunch instead of packing them one. Saying no at work to extra-curricular activities, and laughing at myself when I forgot for the second time that month to take out the garbage. I took deep breaths. I went to yoga. I hugged my children daily. I decided that it was better to laugh than to stress, and so I practiced that. At first, it felt unnatural, but gradually, I eased up.
I bought a surfboard, and got a passport. I let my hair fly salty and wild when I drove home from the beach with the top down, my children signing loudly along with me.
Recently, I sat on a beach at night with my daughter. School was about to start, and we knew that we would be forced back into our routines—homework, and projects, and PTA meetings that I would never attend. I worried, briefly, if I was doing right by her. She broke me out of my deep reverie by asking me this.
Do you think there is a Heaven? She asked.
How am I supposed to answer? I stared upwards at the dark pitch of night. I didn’t want to fail my daughter. I felt the old tug of anxiety.
We are more than blood and bone, I finally replied. We are spirit and soul, and those things can’t die, baby.
But, where does love go when we die? She continued. Do we take it with us?
I thought about my own marriage, and the men I had dated since. I have this big clumsy heart, and I am always stumbling. I could worry that my children do not have a male under their roof, or that they do not have a traditional family sitting at the dinner table, but I don’t. I won’t.
Instead, I focused on what I believed. I shared it with my daughter.
I think love is like an echo, I said. Certain now. It is all around us, reverberating, and pulsating, moving outward in waves of supercharged particles. I think when you die, your love becomes like a shooting star, exploding everywhere. It doesn’t get lost.
The wind blows as if to punctuate this thought, a tiny gift from the universe.
Feel that, baby girl? I asked her.
She tilted her small face upwards. Her profile caught inside of stars. All her freckles were illuminated.
Love, she smiled.
But, someone is dying, Momma. She shrieked suddenly as if she had taken a terrible bite of an otherwise ripe and delicious fruit. Someone, someplace is dying right now. She panicked.
I watched her burgeoning recognition, and I wanted to swallow her small sadness.
Yes, my darling girl. Yes. They are. I pulled her to me. People are dying, and failing and messing it up. But, they are also being born, falling in love, and sitting on the beach staring at stars just like us. All of it is happening, all at once, such beautiful continuous madness that makes up being alive.
I don’t want to die, Momma. I don’t want you to die.
We have no way to harness time. The best shot we have at immortality is to simply exhaust ourselves with living. I have no honest answer for my daughter. No way to keep either of us any safer than we were at that moment. But, I learned by being the kind of woman who has let go, that perfection is not required for my daughter to grow up happy. It is certainly not necessary for myself. I embraced the things that are wild, and messy, and wholly unformed.
Dance with me, Molls. Right here, underneath this umbrella of stars, I said.
I pulled her up, and her small arms wrapped around me.
We won’t die, baby. Not you. Not me. Not for a very, very, very long time.
Because I am a mother, I whispered this small lie.
I spun her reckless in the moonlight, in her laughter, with wild tenderness.
We are born, tiny and perfect. We grow up, and we inevitably become broken, used, battered and scarred. If we are lucky, we die long into our life having amassed an army of imperfections. We need to embrace those Imperfections because they are simply gifts disguised.
Author: Kelly Russell
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Rob Briscoe