My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.
“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”
It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.
“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”
This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”
As if it were that simple.
For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.
It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.
At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)
It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.
I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.
In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.
Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.
In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.
Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.
But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.
This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.
That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.
I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.
I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.
Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.
“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”
Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.
I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” I know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.
Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”
I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.
If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.
It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.
One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”
And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.
I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.
I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.
Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.
That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.
Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”
The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.