During my senior year of college, I lived with a family in a house on the foothills of Oregon’s coastal mountains. They kept chickens in the side yard. Their back porch featured an octagonal opening to make space for a towering oak tree older than any of us. For reduced rent, I nannied their two children, six and nine.
The youngest, Camille, I adored. She was terrified of the wild turkeys that roamed our street. I lived in the lower half of their split-level home, and the evenings I could hear her feet thundering with tantrums that she never imposed upon me. Our time together was always easy. I would paint her nails, she would braid my hair. She’s a teenager now.
About once a week, she’d pull out the photo album from the day she was born and ask her sister to provide details to the pictures. “This is me,” she would say, pointing to the ruddy bundle in a blanket. “Me before I was me.”
At the time, I merely considered her curiosity in herself charming.
I’ve never been that way. The details of my birth are scattered. My mother lost my birth certificate, and we don’t talk anymore, and I don’t know anything about the night I was born of the weeks that followed. It’s no loss. I never had that history. It never belonged to me.
I came to the US in diapers and am always aware of my blessings. I’m one of few — babies born in third world countries who are swooped, willy nilly, into a privileged life in the developed. Finished school and then college and then my masters, ended up with the love of my life, am cared for, provided for, and enjoy that privilege every day. It’s lucky. It’s incredibly lucky.
So it feels self-indulgent to admit that I am sometimes stricken with a melancholy so powerful that it mauls me from the chest out. There are days when I can’t finish a sentence without my voice shuddering on the edge of tears. It’s ridiculous and irritating. It’s depression. It comes and goes.
Bright soldier I am, I do my best. Living with another person is a tremendous energy boost. So is having a dog. And a garden. Going to yoga. Cooking beautiful food. Working on assignment. Just this morning, I interviewed a man who photographs disaster-stricken communities. New Orleans, Joplin, Boston.
These past few days though, I am stricken with great caverns of sadness. It hits me from the backs of my knees. I feel I might collapse. Sometimes I feel so tired I just want to lay down. I’ve never been suicidal but I understand the misery that might lead to it.
Since my grandmother died in December, I sometimes wake up crying in the middle of the night. More than once, I leave Jon in our bed and crawl into Pax’s dog bed just to indulge the shrinking feeling o fitting into a small space. I think about that line from the end of Adaptation, when Meryl Streep screams, “I want to be a baby again.”
It weighs on Jon and I hate that. I don’t expect him to fix anything. I hope he knows. He once told me, “Sometimes you’re so far away. I can see it. You’re gone.” More than once he’s said, “You scare me, sometimes.” He’s afraid I’ll leave for someone my own age, as though aging leads to expiration.
How can you explain to someone that any other version of a life that excludes them seems simply incomprehensible?
‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? — Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body
A while back, it occurred to me that I’ve known him his entire adult life but he’s only just getting to know me in my form. He argued that he’s known me since I was a little girl, since the beginning. I told him that wasn’t true at all, that he only knew the version of myself that had been shaped by my parents, and the me that is emerging, still evolving, is to the credit of no one else but myself. He didn’t say anything back.
A lot of our exchanges end like this, outwitted and cornered.
The other night he sat beside me on the couch and bowed until his head fit into the cleft of my ribcage, below the heart.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
“Why do you love me?”
“Why do you love me?”
He didn’t say anything.
I said, “If I didn’t love you, do you think I would have moved to Missouri? Risked my relationship with my father? Taken a part-time job at a small publication when I ought to, want to, work for something bigger? Given up any hope of a career? Made any of these sacrifices?”
I felt his throat bob as he swallowed.
“Go on,” he said softly. “Tell me more.”
Tell me more.
In one sentence, the echoes of that old life in the Oregon foothills rose up to me, sitting on the floor with that six-year-old girl while she showed me her baby pictures and summoned the stories of her birth. Of becoming.
“Tell me more,” Jon pleaded again.
To be known, to be loved. There we were, sitting on a couch, moving closer to understanding one more part of a story; my story of us, his story of me.
It’s sometimes dark under our roof but here we are, still reaching for the light.
How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled. — Michael Ondaajte, The English Patient