The leaves on the trees were bright orange and yellow; more often than not, I ended up walking through them as they cascaded from the treetops. My often barefoot feet hated stepping on them, because they were so pretty. Still, I loved hearing the loud crunch beneath my shoes as I inevitably walked on the ones strewn across the sidewalk in front of me. The air was crisp; the breeze consistent and light, the sky partially shaded by numerous clouds. It was the first truly Autumn day of the year; Summer had lingered, stalling the start of the new season with its heat and humidity. Just the week before, we’d played outside and commented on how hot it still was. Today, though, the world around me both looked and felt like something new. The colors and the breeze and the overcast sky was both a welcomed relief and strangely reminiscent of my changing emotions.
Summer normally found me lounging away in bliss: worries seemed to slide right off of me into the cool water of a pool that I seemed to always be near. Summer was the God-given time to relax, to play, to host backyard campouts in tents , to roast marsh mellows and eat hot dogs. It was a time to celebrate all sorts of things: independence and youth, to name a few. Time seemed to slow, and wait for me to catch up. I was more concerned chasing my kids and the dog through the water sprinkler than I was pretty much anything else. It was easier to smile in Summer. But, by late August, the smiles began feeling strained, and more effort was required to get out in the heat and find something positive to say about it. The sun beating down on me didn’t seem to warm my body so much as it seemed to scorch it. I still wouldn’t admit to it – verbally or non-verbally – but I searched for clouds, adored rain, began retreating to my air conditioned house or car more frequently than I’d opt for a walk in the park, or a bike ride.
My waning enthusiasm for the hottest season of the year welcomed Autumn in with a sigh of relief. My body was grateful: it felt as though it could relate to nature again, as though God knew that it’d been a great few months, but now it was time for something to give me rest, and refreshment. As I walked up the sidewalk, hand-in-hand with my daughter, I thought about that. I saw a mother in front of me. She pushed a stroller with infant twins and talked excitedly with the three or four year old boy who walked beside her. As if that wasn’t enough, she was dressed in impeccable fashion: she could have been a model. She made this thing called life look easy, whereas me…. well, I had to work at it. Sure, I could do the same things she did. But every step required superhuman strength some days. Sure, I played with my daughter. I sang to her. I did arts and crafts with her. Everyone said she spoke extraordinarily well for one so young: at three, she could hold a highly intelligent and understandable conversation. Sure, I was patient. Patience was a virtue I’d always had; it was part of my DNA. But. As this woman and I both walked out children into the pediatrician’s waiting room, as we signed the check-in sheet and then steered the little ones to a seat, I felt clumsy and awkward.
I bounced my little girl on my knee, made her laugh by blowing in her ear, told her a story. As I did, my ears listened to the strangely familiar cacophony around me. The mother I’d followed into the waiting room was now rocking one of the twins in one arm, and was fully engaged in a conversation with yet another Mom waiting in the office. They obviously knew one another, for their conversation was animated and long. When, a minute later, my three year old walked up to a kid near her age, I smiled at the child’s parent, who sat next to her husband. Wasn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Smile at people? Isn’t that the universal non-verbal communication tool that marks you as friendly, invites others to do the smile? Yet, when the mom smiled briefly back at me, then turned her face toward her husband, I felt, once again, out of place, awkward. I was not like these women. I wasn’t dressed like them, I didn’t act like them. They talked to other adults; my companion by choice was my daughter. I glanced behind me, out the huge window, and saw the leaves. They still fell, one after the other, almost as though someone sat in high in the tree, shaking the branches. They were all so colorful. But, on the ground, amidst the colorful leaves lay the crinkled, often torn brown leaves. Suddenly tired, and before I could digress into comparing myself to one of those brown leaves, I shifted my eyes away from the window and back onto my lovely, perfectly beautiful little girl.
Before I knew it, the nurse called our name back.
We were just here for a check-up. Everything was fine. But there was a question, mainly one of reassurance for me, that I wanted to ask the doctor this time. She was weighed, and checked for height. As usual, she was still in the upper nineties percentile. I have never fully understand these “percentiles” except that the doctor has mentioned, on more than one occasion, that it’s just a number they use for comparison’s sake: that she’d have to drop really, really low on the chart before red signs were raised. Still, it does me good to see each year that she is still in the same percentile that she’s always been. It tells me that she’s growing at a steady, consistent, healthy rate. Before long, the doctor enters. We’re lucky. We have a great pediatrician, one who came to the hospital every single day when she had to have an operation as a baby, even when it was his day off. Not only is he knowledgeable, but he’s also personable. I like him. And he generally is good at putting me at ease. In fact, I can’t recall a single moment I’ve ever found myself ill at ease in his presence. He’s very positive, and reassuring.
But, toward the end of the session, I realized he didn’t know anything about my past. I figured that it was probably good for him to know, for whatever reasons I might not yet know. So, I told him, very quickly. “This might be something that you’d need to be aware of …. you see, when I was growing up, I was …. I was …. hurt.”
He didn’t understand. In horror, I stood there and watched wariness replace confusion upon his face, as the lightbulbs went off in his head. “You – you mean… you were. … How? By ….” his eyes and mine both darted to my daughter and, not wanting to provide her any words that she needn’t know, I quickly nodded my head, my stomach in my throat.
“Oh,” the doctor’s voice was a whisper. He continued to stare at me. “Wow. I never would have guessed.” For the first time in three years, I found myself ill at ease. He was genuinely surprised, and he didn’t mean any harm, but the knot in my stomach gripped me hard, making it hard to breathe as shame washed over me in waves. Somehow, the totality of his surprise hurt and surprised me. When he continued to look at me in amazement, I exhaled a smile, and bent my head, swiping at fallen tears. If I could have run from the room, I would have. Suddenly, before I could look up, he reached over and hugged me. It was brief, but it was warm. And it made everything much better. Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in my own head. His shock hadn’t stemmed from horror. He didn’t think any less of me. His surprise stemmed because, for three years, he’d seen me as a jovial, conscientious mother who smiled happily, replied, “I’m good, how are you?” each time he asked how things were and gave no outward sign of vulnerability. Retrospect makes me think he was surprised as much by how apparent my discomfort was in discussing the subject as anything, how stark the pain. When I apologized and said I supposed it was something I should have told him long before, he shrugged and nodded, assured me that it was okay I hadn’t and promised, “Well, I won’t forget it.” He also assured me everything with my daughter was fine.
I walked out of his office hand-in-hand with my little girl more aware than ever of the faces we show others. You see, Autumn feels cooler. But the Sun that shines on bright days in Fall is the same Sun that shines on the hottest day of Summer. It provides the same amount of heat in Fall as it does in Summer. The only difference is that it’s masked more by clouds and wind. In and of itself, it doesn’t change. We just see it through a different lens: one when the humidity is thick, the air muggy and the pool inviting; another when the humidity is absent and thoughts of hot chocolate fill our brains. Most of the time when I see other women, I felt clumsy, awkward, inferior. But I don’t believe that’s how my child’s pediatrician viewed me. Instead, I think he saw someone happy, confident and peaceful: I think that’s what surprised him the most – was realizing that my over-bright smile masked stark demons and pain he’d never fathomed.
There’s this whole debate over whether or not we can ever be objective toward ourselves. Many say no. I like to think differently. I like to believe that if we ask for, and thoughtfully consider, the opinion of others, we can obtain a more rounded, accurate, even objective, view of who we are. We can say, “I’m good at ________” but, as much as it pains me to admit it, I may need help with ___________.” In other words, I may feel awkward, inept and clumsy – but that’s obviously not how I’m viewed by others. If they don’t view me that way, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate my own feelings, but it does encourage me to take heart and perhaps remember, the next time I see a mother who appears confident and perfect, that, chances are, she views me in much the same way as I view her.
I still might wake up and want to compare myself to a brown leaf, lying dead amongst a colorful collage of beauty. I still might find it tempting to feel inept when I realize I have no idea how to cultivate friendships with my peers. But…. hanging above my mantle, framed, is a felt leaf. It is bright orange. I chose to frame a felt leaf, rather than an actual Fall leaf, because I wanted its color to remain. When I look at that framed leaf, I think of Autumn and how the seasons change, and the weather changes, but the Sun still continues to shine bright, radiating warmth. It’s capable of melting snow. I can choose to shine. I can choose to walk back into my pediatrician’s office with a coat of shame, because he knows my darkest pain. Or I can walk back in, the next time I need to do so, with an over-bright smile and a question of my own: “how are you?” Which season do I want to represent? Summer finds me happy, with few worries. Autumn finds me reflective and often withdrawn. Which season would I most have my daughter represent? Which season would most likely bring me positive memories for years to come?
I sit in my car, with my seat belt fastened, both my hands on the wheel, my elbows locked. I turn to look at my daughter in the back seat. She is smiling. She is happy. Because she is happy, others will smile at her, and find encouragement. Because she is happy, happiness will cling to her. I look straight again, out my windshield and I take a very long, deep breath. It’s true that sometimes smiles just mask the pain – but the theory of self-fulfilling prophecy is true too. If I want to be happy, then I need to think positively.
I reach out and turn the radio on and as I open my mouth to sing happy-go-lucky Barney songs with my daughter, I feel a completely useless smile tug at the corner of my mouth.