I was 7, surreptitiously drawing dinosaurs on the tablecloth and ignoring Dad droning on about forensics or philosophy or something when he suddenly got quiet. This was shocking, because Dad’s signature was what many academics called “passion” and what we called “crazy yelling”. The sudden lack of volume made us all look up as Dad concluded his speech.
“For hundreds of thousands of years, people have looked up at the night sky. Philosophers, peasants, soldiers, slaves, children. They looked at the stars and the moon and felt exactly what you feel now. They were dreamers, and people seeking refuge, and they were hopeful and lost and afraid and heartbroken, just like you. So no matter what, you are not alone. Because as long as there have been people, there have been those who searched the night sky for comfort. And now that light is yours”, he ended, looking me directly in the eye. We all sat silently in contemplation.
“It’s a little trite, don’t you think?” asked my cousin, breaking the moment. Everyone resumed their activities, and I allowed the lively argument that ensued to serve as white noise as the memory faded.
Soon after, my life began to unravel like a loose ball of yarn. It turned out that being the daughter of geniuses was a double-edged sword. The pressure to excel, mixed with a stern disapproval for anything that resembled emotion, wound me up until I felt like a shaken soda bottle that was getting ready to explode. I spent my formative years crafting the perfect college transcript. That blew up when Dad died and then a month later the house flooded and we lost everything. And so my senior year began with a move to a bare, dingy apartment, a gaping hole in my life, and a newfound loss of purpose. I stopped doing my homework, going to class, studying, leading clubs, volunteering. My relationship with my family went from close to volatile, and I went from a member of the household to someone inhabiting the room upstairs.
I ended up going to college after all, taking out huge loans to leave everything I knew behind. My mom watched me pack with mixed disappointment and hope. “This is your chance. You can use this opportunity to build something great.” I didn’t care. Instead, I chased fleeting reprieves from the bitter clouds that choked me every time I slowed down. Among flashing strobe lights and disreputable people, I neglected my studies and danced until I dropped.
Soon, I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. My spine curved in defeat, my hair hung lank, and the circles under my eyes were so pronounced they looked like bruises. The emptiness in my reflection scared me, and I learned how to cover it with concealer and apply my makeup without looking.
Midway through my junior year, I got a call from my mother. Stubborn and vaguely ashamed, I hadn’t taken her calls or gone home since leaving, so I let the phone ring. Later, I checked her message.
“I don’t know why I’m still surprised that you don’t pick up,” she sighed. Her voice sounded shaky. “Look, I know you’re not studying or taking this seriously. And I can’t keep paying for you to not try, ok? So,” a sharp inhale, “I’m sorry, but if you don’t pull it together, I’m not gonna pay your tuition next year.” I dropped the phone. What? The message was still going. I scrambled to pick up the phone in the foolish hope that it was a joke.
“I really- please, just call me. I just want to know if you’re- what’s going on with you. If you keep going on like this, you’re going to ruin your future.” Any emotion in her voice had abruptly been replaced with steel. “Please let me know if I can do anything to help you.” There was more, but I was too furious to listen. I threw the phone down and took an ugly sort of satisfaction in the way the screen shattered. Help me? I didn’t need her! Something quiet reminded me that she paid half my tuition and I had huge loans already. Quick calculations told me that without that money, I was royally screwed. I hurled the calculator at the wall. Cold fingers of despair and fear were creeping around my neck, and I stormed out, hoping to escape my problems and to forget how sick I felt inside. The next morning, I found that I had done neither, and somehow felt emptier than I had before.
I actually tried for a little bit after that. I opened my textbooks. I got a job. I forced myself to get out of bed, to be clean, to work. I vowed that I wouldn’t speak to my mother until I had something to show her. And things were kind of looking up. It was like taking a breath of fresh air after rotting underground. But like a moth to a flame, I felt myself pulled to old habits that promised instant relief. So again, I chased temporary solutions, hoping without hope that one of them would cut out the cold that had encircled my bones like a snake.
I won’t get into the mess that was my senior year, but suffice it to say I left my higher education with an undeserved degree and a mountain of debt. As I stumbled back to my tiny studio after a night shift, half dead with exhaustion, I tripped over a box on the doorstep. Upon further inspection, I realized that the box was for me, from an aunt. Groaning, I heaved it inside and dragged it to my corner of the room, muttering apologies to my sleeping roommates. I tore open the box and froze, because right on top was a picture of me with my father. In a haze, I skimmed the note - clearing out some things, thought you might like... Gingerly, I touched the frame, and was so overwhelmed that I felt like it had burned me. I couldn’t breathe. I staggered outside and only made it a few steps before collapsing on the sidewalk, gasping for air, choking on pain. Dad was swinging me around, calmly bandaging my skinned knee, making me late for trick-or-treating because I had dressed up as a butterfly and he had to explain migration patterns, pacing as he expounded on Herodotus or Halley’s comet or something, looking me directly in the eye while he talked about- wait. Everything snapped into disorienting focus as I snatched at fragments of memories.
I rolled over and contemplated the sky, overcast with pollution. The moon was a soft haze behind the clouds, and it was the first light I’d seen in a while that didn’t leave painful spots when I closed my eyes. Feeling lightheaded, I recalled with shocking clarity the too-trite conclusion to Dad’s speech. For hundreds of thousands of years, people have looked up at the night sky. I thought about all those people- revolutionaries, criminals, artists, shepherds, monarchs- equal under the impartial glow of the moon. All of them hopeful, lost, afraid, heartbroken, like me. Since the dawn of time, we’d all been here, searching the night sky for comfort, refuge, forgiveness, guidance. And now that light belongs to you. I opened my eyes and thought I could see the answer written in the stars. It was everything I had run from for so long, everything I had pushed down, tried to forget, and refused to do out of pride, shame, fear. But even though I knew that I was lying down by myself on the sidewalk in a sketchy part of town, I had never felt safer or more assured. No matter what, you are not alone. I took a deep breath. Two. Three. And then, shaking off the residual panic, casting away the excuses, the embarrassment, the walls, I dialed a number I still knew by heart.
“Hey, Mom,” I smiled, the muscles aching from disuse. “Can we talk?” And as the moon rose in the sky and I began to repair bridges I thought were burnt, a painful heaviness began to lift.