Rethinking the hardest things I’ve ever had to do

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Several years ago, on the now defunct, forever beloved blogging platform Open Salon, I wrote a post called “The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Had to Do.” The hardest thing in question? Waiting on line for nearly twelve hours in order to get the documentation I needed to be able to stay in France. By the end of it, I had black and blues around my knees, troubling memories of other people who’d waited as long or longer but weren’t as lucky, and a new hardness to me.

Recently, I was thinking about this post. The funny thing is, I realize now that while that remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, it’s not the single, stand-alone one anymore.

In addition to that experience, here are some of the other “hardest things” I’ve had to do. Yes, I know “hardest” sort of makes it seem like it’s the most difficult, the only one. But all of what follows are difficult in different ways:

In no particular order:

- Watching my mother battle cancer (and ultimately lose). Her face and falling apart at the diagnosis. The times when she was in so much pain she wanted to give up — even though she’d never yielded to pain before. When we learned the cancer had spread to her brain. The terrible late-night phone calls where I’d hear she’d had another seizure. Finding out how much the experience had traumatized my brother, who was her amazing caretaker. The moment she stopped wanting to talk to me, and prepared to die.

- The death of my cat Ali. Ali was my friend, the only being in my life who loved me purely and unconditionally. We did everything we could when we found out he had a likely inoperable tumor in his bladder. I had to be stronger than I could have believed, taking him alone for surgery, caring for my son and trying to keep it together when the end finally came, while my husband was away.

- Motherhood. I love my son. But if you’re a parent, you know what I mean. For me, parenting has its amazing moments, its glorious moments, and it’s made me a better person, and put a pretty amazing little person in my world. But it’s also like those images of lionesses trying to sleep while their cubs play with them. You can’t rest, you can’t totally focus on the heart inside of you. Sometimes you don’t feel this at all. You rise up and play with the cubs, or you’re out hunting and okay with knowing they’re safe with the rest of the pride. But other times, you just want to run away over the savannah and never come back. And when you think those things, even for a moment, you feel worse than ever.

- Potty training. I am putting this in a separate category. The excrement, the smells, constantly being frustrated and not being able to show it lest you damage your kid. The endless, endless, droning slavery of it all.

- Falling out of love and being unloved. There was a time when my husband and I just didn’t like each other very much. Or, I needed him, but he didn’t like me. No single event provoked it, and coming out of it is still a sort of cautious thing. I don’t like who we were then, at least, not towards each other.

You may read this list and relate, or maybe you’re thinking, You lucky bitch — that’s IT? Either way, I get it. A therapist once told me that just as you shouldn’t compare your success to others’, you shouldn’t compare your challenges, either. There is no definitive scale. Sometimes even the smallest things can hit us hard. But it’s not always easy to keep that in mind.

Whatever you think of my own hardest times, there is one silver lining to them — and I think it’s nearly universal. Our hardest times make us, well, harder. You may not be the shiny, undented self you were before, but as you go forward, you feel a kind of strength inside you among the broken pieces.

With the exception of motherhood, which I’m still in the trenches of and mostly grateful for, I don’t really like revisiting these hardest times. When I do, I try to look at the good things that are inside them, though.

I think of how grateful I am that, God willing, I’ll never have another experience like that at immigration again. I think of some of those glorious, miraculous moments during my mom’s five-year sickness, when she was in remission and happy and we were able to make some of my favorite memories together. I think of the grace of the morning and afternoon before I took my cat to the clinic, how calm he was, how it was a day suffused with holy light. I think of our last walk through Paris together. I have no good memories of potty training, but the relief when it was over is its own special rush, like the memory of a drug I took one time at a party. Falling out of love brought a dark, deep pool into my life that will never completely dry, even when the love returns. But I can see when the pool’s dark waters start to lap at me and bring out parts of myself I don’t like. I can try to learn a lesson and push back the tide, even though that’s not always easy and sometimes the dark water wins for a while.

But overall, I’m not in the dark and there’s more light than darkness inside of me. Despite these hardest times, despite others that hurt but weren’t the hardest. And that gives me hope.

I have a very, very hard time dealing with change and with the unknown. I go through life afraid nearly every day of what might come. Then, I hold hard to the hardest times and think, I got through these. Hopefully they’ll remain my hardest times, but whatever comes, I hope the strength they gave me will stay a part of me.

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