Our paths lead us through and over chasms of light and dark. There really isn’t another way. Some are deep and wide and perilous. Some are lightly filled with honey-meringue and joy. Some look right, but aren’t. Some look brutal, but are really blessings. All of them are invisible until we traverse them. And thank goodness.
A common thing a young adult will hear from slightly older young adults: “You just can’t know what it’s like to have a baby until you have one.” And it’s true. No matter how much you don’t want it to be true, it is. Sure, some of us are more prepared than others. If, for example, you grew up as an older child with a baby in the house, you have a leg up. I most certainly did not. On the night of the birth of my first child – two nights after labor began – I found myself alone in a drab Philadelphia hospital room. In my memory it is like any other hospital room from the Netflix show Stranger Things.
Mother had just undergone surgery to bring our beautiful child into the world and was passed out on drugs. The nurse said many things very quickly that I didn’t catch or at least caught and released, and then left with a click. Then there was just me. And a baby. And the baby started crying. And I looked down at this beautiful child with horror. My first day as a parent – the person who is supposed to do whatever it takes to bring comfort to their brand-new, completely dependent being.
I panicked. I called the nurse. “Yes?” she said. “Um, the um, the um . . .” I said. “YES?” she said with growing annoyance. I’m sure she was busy. “I, um, he’s um, he’s crying.” I stammered. I was holding him – cradling really – and rocking back and forth. The only thing I could think was that I didn’t have useful nipples, and so what could I do? The nurse said with annoyance, and I’ll never forget this, “Yes, he’s a baby. They cry.” “But, I, um. . . how do I . . . ?” I was going into shock. “Babies cry when they need something,” she said. “Can mom nurse him?” “No. No. She’s . . . um . . . she’s . . . um . . .” “She’s sleeping?” It’s like I needed her to speak for both of us. “Um . . . yeah . . . what, um . . . what do I do?”
This question: What do I do? What can you do? When you don’t know and you’re thrust into the ring, what can you do? I have a friend who signed up for fight night one time because you got paid $50 for even just stepping into the ring. That’s a chasm I’ll never cross, but I recognized the fear in his voice recounting the tale. That fear was in my voice over the phone to the night nurse. “Change his diaper?” she suggested. “Um, yeah . . . um, I . . . um . . .” Another deep sigh. “I’ll send someone up.”
That chasm seemed dark, but fast forward a few years and a couple kids later. Without stepping across to another invisible chasm, I will say that it was decided to do cloth diapers. And I am now a cloth diaper wizard. I can capably change a cloth diaper in an airplane bathroom. Ain’t no thing. Chasm crossed. I can turn around and look at it, see the crenelations and spires, trace the outline of every blind crevasse, every dark night filled with worry. This chasm is straight up invisible to the me who hadn’t crossed it. There’s no getting around it.
I wondered recently what a list of invisible chasms would look like – a list of things that were unknowable until experiencing them. It would have wonderful and exciting things on it like kissing, taking a plane on your own, visiting a place where a very different language is spoken, learning to drive, training for some physical feat that is very hard, seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.
Seeing the rings of Saturn is a great example of an invisible chasm that seems like it shouldn’t be one. We’ve all seen pictures of the rings of Saturn a million times. Why would it be different through a telescope? Because it is. It just is.
But this is life. And life consists of jagged and ugly crossings: losing someone close, getting divorced, losing a beloved job, car wrecks, persistent anxiety. You’re in the emergency room and it’s all going to shit, and there’s nothing you can do. So much of these kinds of chasms are about enduring loss.
We can’t know what loss is until we are faced with it. As a young person, I didn’t even know I was accumulating things that could be lost later: Love, friendships, exuberance, ideals, passion, trust. My grandfather died when I was barely into my twenties. It took decades to unwind that loss. When my marriage unraveled a few years ago, it felt like a ghost hand reached into my guts and tore out the best parts of me. Watching my middlest – when he was all of two years old – disappear into an operating room surrounded by people dressed as aliens ready to attempt to make his little heart function correctly was terrifying. What really matters is what we do with the chasms. How do we catalog a life? Should we even try?
Our options are limited. Denial was a popular response of my younger days. This isn’t happening. Everything is OK – take the Calvin and Hobbes route – live and don’t learn. Usually this is unconscious – a defense mechanism. I have never met a person who was intentionally in denial about something hard. We can self-medicate. Another popular choice of my youth. Again, we don’t usually understand what we’re self-medicating for until the self-medicating becomes its own difficult invisible chasm to cross.
What’s magical about being a person is that we can choose to look down into the gaping vastness. At a certain point, if we’ve crossed enough of these chasms and, importantly, haven taken the time to look at the crossing, we can start to relate a little. Take a minute to look back over your shoulder at the space you’ve crossed, or even to just look down because the chasm you’re in will span a lifetime. Once, a friend confided in me about her experience with chronic anxiety, about sitting in a stairwell outside work trying to breathe and cry and just pull it together enough to put one step in front of another. I’ve never had that experience. But I know what it is to be ugly-crying your guts out and then have to go be a person. Some don’t, but everyone has the opportunity to if you’ve ever chosen look down at the crags and crenelations. And there’s a shining, beautiful path that will take you by surprise until you’ve experienced it – what it feels like to endure a loss, not on your own, but alongside another who loves without judgment or criticism.
There’s another invisible chasm which is like the zeroeth chasm on the list. Looking hard into those dark inner topographies is critical to experiencing joy. Stepping into the suck makes the bright chasms sparkle and shine. My memory of my first kiss is ever so much more sweet because I choose to look hard into the loss around last kisses I’ve known. The joy of attending my eldest’s Christmas choir concert is brought into relief because I choose to feel the loss of my grandfather’s piano playing at the annual Christmas sing. It can’t be any other way. You don’t get to have honey-meringue without brutal emptiness. Knowing this is, in itself, an invisible chasm.
Some chasms are the result of choices we make and don’t know the ends of. They are like strings held on one end, blowing unpredictably in the wind on the other. We have some agency after all, though I would guess less than we think we do. Others are simply a part of being a human – the mile markers of biological existence: walking, puberty (gah), aging, the final chasm we all will get to cross: dying. I hated puberty. (Who loves puberty?) Getting old sucks ass. But I wouldn’t get rid of any of those experiences for anything. Old Dr. M.E.K. had it right when, after my grandfather passed, he said as he was helping our family navigate those final days, “He’s experienced the last part of his life.” I love that. Dying as a final part of living. To quote a Shins song: “the years are short but the days go slowly by.” May there be ever so many more invisible chasms to cross between now and then.