For some reason, I can only remember tiny snippets of the life I had before society decided I was suddenly an “adult.” The number eighteen is as arbitrary as any other digit; some have been through the unimaginable prior to the landmark, others haven’t. For me, early years were lost somewhere in time. I do hope someday I will find them again. Few and far between, the moments I remember involve pain, food, an animal - or some combination of the three - and were predictive of who I’d someday be.
I ran along Compo Beach when I was six years old, past its iconic wooden playground. I would’ve believed you if you’d told me that it was as big as Grand Central back then. I loved the way it squeaked when I jumped on the wooden bridge and ran through the tunnels. This was before I became a compulsive germaphobe, and at a time where children could leave home without bubble wrap, so Compo’s playground was my Mecca. Eyes set on the snack bar, feet skimming the sand, I jumped onto the wooden deck that overlooked the beach. The wood was surrendering to years of weather and humidity imposed on it by the ocean. Pain moved through my foot and up my ankle seconds before I reached my prized cheeseburger and I laid crying on tattered planks of wood. My au pair, Susi, trailed close behind, scooping my little body up to go home.
Once home, my mom promptly inspected my foot and determined I was fine. There was hardly any indication that I was injured at all. Now mind you, my mom’s pain tolerance is off the chart. After she plunged head-first from a cliff in Belize and was evacuated from the rainforest, she was stitched up without Novocain. Dad stood by her side until he went green in the face and needed medical assistance of his own. When mom developed a near-deadly blood clot in her calf, she carried on with life despite the pain. She almost walked onto the flight doctors said would likely have killed her, but our friend cautioned us that she may have had deep vein thrombosis. She did. I cried under a blanket the whole way to Alaska, begging to stay with her at home. Years later, in a brutal car accident, there were deep lacerations on the back of mom’s head. She was on a phone call at the time of impact and uttered words that haunted my young self -- "I've been hit, -- before losing consciousness. She still made it to the pickup line to get me from paper-mâché club despite the staples keeping her brain inside. I know what you’re thinking: my mom is frighteningly resilient, and my involvement in paper-mâché club may be why I’m a sad person. Both are probably true. And when mom is most in agony, she faints in inconvenient places before ever complaining. I get this tendency from her (the fainting, not the lack of complaining). So, when it comes to pain, she can be a tough critic.
It is for this reason and the following, that I can’t blame my mom for not believing I was hurt that day at the beach. As one who has so aptly complemented my mother from birth, I always loved to cover my body in Band Aids when I was young. By this, I mean I was absolutely decked out in America’s best and brightest. Be it Power Rangers, Mickey Mouse, Rocket Power, or some other pattern of the month, Band Aids were the perfect accessory for me. I can assure you I’ve learned how to dress myself in something other than Band Aids but I sometimes miss their versatility and how they screamed, “I’m a fun girl.”
A week later we made a trip to the doctor because I still refused to use my right leg (I may have also put a Band Aid on it). The doctor looked me over and sent me straight to the ER. I had a thick, four-inch splinter lodged in my foot, despite there being no external sign of it. My skin had fully healed over it. I peered over the tiny scrubs they gave me and down the table, watching as the surgeon approached me with a scalpel. He made an incision the length of my foot and picked the fragmented pieces out. That was gross but I survived and my mom was mortified. What was once a pileup of old, rotting wood is now a steel playground with a similarly well-equipped deck. I used to believe I had inspired the upgrade: that poor girl covered in Band Aids who stubbed her foot and wound up in the emergency room. I still get a sharp pain through my foot when it rains, so I never forget that splinter.
I remember the baby moles I found huddling in the shed by my old house. Inspired by the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, I thought maybe I could keep them in my drawer with a heating lamp. I picked one up and held its little pink body in my hand, running with it to show Susi. When she told me gently that I needed to go put it back and that it would probably die because I had touched it, I remember feeling shattered. One minute I had something I could nurture and give a better chance, and the next minute I’d murdered it.
Years later, when my bulldog, Tubs, and I found each other, we were forever changed. At least, I like to think he was too. Tubs has endured it all; a rough babyhood, and far worse, me, hovering over him, torturing him with sparkly, pink crowns. He has been through so much with me: the time he ate a cockroach and I thought he was going to die, my intense highs and lows, two moves, Hamilton’s death, and the everyday challenges of being a dog whose anatomy makes no sense. But at the end of the day, he is the best pillow I have, and he’s taught me how to trust again. It’s no surprise to me that I began remembering things again in their entirety just after I met Tubs. I fear that when he dies a huge piece of me will die with him. Tubs has seen me grow like no one else has, and he hasn’t judged me for the steps it required. He’s watched me break down in both emotional hysterics and in laughter, pace restlessly after posting some of my most emotionally-taxing writing, lose weight, gain weight, face death, forgive someone, love without reserve, and fight for the things I deserve.
I was twelve when I first learned what ‘weight’ truly means in our society. From that moment, the word would no longer elicit the uncomplicated memory I had of Nana’s Ice Cream and Candy Shop in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Before, weight was merely one way to quantify how far the Jelly Beans and Melty Mints I scooped into my bag would put me back. Suddenly, it was no longer indicative of that, or the “percentile” I was assigned by my doctor as he measured my height and weighed me; numbers that gave me the sense I was strong and healthy relative to my peers. “You are in the 75th percentile for weight and in the same for height,” my doctor would say, and I would think this was a tremendous accomplishment. I walked out of that place like I was awarded a Nobel Prize, and right into a world where the word “weight” flattened me into nothing. The number on a scale is only a digit, but one that feeds collective dysmorphia. I once condoned this number to commit a burglary of everything I had been. Today, I’ve allowed my love for spaghetti to take back what was stolen.
In the end, I’ve shut my addictive personality down with the things that make me whole: animals, food, and pain. Freaks people out when I say that, but aren't we all a little addicted to pain? I mean, why are you reading this? I know very few people who don't click on a headline that says "someone died doing this and it was horrible." What are you addicted to? Sometimes I’m captivated by this life and all the possibilities it has afforded me. Other times it's the darkness I’m drawn to. My brain torments me by telling me my dreams are nonstarters but I come out on the other side with renewed hope.
Life becomes about understanding pain and why we have it; how else are we expected to endure the 80+ years we never signed up for? I’m enamored by the capacity we have to reshape pain; to make something beautiful out of the ashes of misplaced years. Gone are the times in which I simply felt too much and didn’t know what was happening to me. I’ve been commended for my empathy but where do we draw the line? Is it at the point where empathy is transformed into an absorption of the world's pain; where it melts into a pool of worry that drowns us at night? It can be an unbelievably crushing experience for me every single day, to want to make all that is bad, good. Earlier today, I ran from one end of the subway station to the other - on the bumpy, yellow caution strip - because a man was rocking toward the edge. He was taken away in handcuffs but I can’t stop thinking I should have helped him. I want to fix things so far out of reach they’re untouchable, so far in my past they're buried, and so far in the future I’m overwhelmed at just the thought of it. I spend my life fixing; the words expelled from my consciousness, the lamp, my body, my brain, other people’s lamps, bodies, and brains. I'm the happiest person I know sometimes, but I'm also the saddest. And for that, I only remember snippets of my childhood. Tubs wraps himself around me when I cry but hides under the bed when I wail. We all have our baggage and before I exposed mine, it forced me to forget the rest of my world. Life was lost in time. But I keep standing even when it made me quiver at the knees. Many of the 80+ years I didn’t sign up for still remain; and that is my crutch.