Whenever I try to write about myself, it always ends up being about you. But this has to be about me. I have to make this about me. Me. Me, me, mine, like a mantra. Like a vow. I have to remember this, because if I don’t, I’ll start writing about you instead. I’m always writing about you.
(I’m always thinking about you.)
I can’t write about me without writing about you.
Me. Me! Who is this “me”? I know who you are. Recalling the image of your face is as easy as remembering my own name. I look into the mirror, but it’s not a mirror, it’s a painting. A painting of you. I painted it myself. I thought I was doing a self-portrait, but instead I did a portrait of you. Funny!
(Well, I thought it was funny, but now I find myself crying. I’m not sure when the laughing turned to sobbing.)
In order to write about myself, I first have to figure out what “myself” means. Let’s start at the beginning: I was born eight days after you, exactly. It’s almost biblical. “And on the eighth day…”
(Eight was always my lucky number.)
“Day eight” only means something in relation to “day one”, which is the day that you were born. “On the first day, God said ‘let there be light’” (you are the light).
And so my story starts with you. You were here first, and then I came along. It’s only chronological…
ENOUGH. I’M WRITING ABOUT ME NOW. ME.
This is a story about pain. In the beginning, there was pain.
When I was around five years old, a bat flew down the chimney of my house and into my bedroom while I slept. Due to this unfortunate event, I was immediately rushed to the hospital so that I could receive rabies vaccines. The shots came in four doses, and these trips to the hospital make up some of my earliest memories. In fact, my first memory of my own physical body is a vision of me looking down at my tiny legs, red and swollen, and seeing doctors sticking them with needles. In my memories, there are multiple doctors and multiple needles. I can recall the unbearable pain that it brought me as easily as if it were happening to me right now.
But more importantly, I remember the nurse that approached me after the shots were finished. She came up next to me as I lay in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines and IV drips and a number of other beeping machines, and she asked me if I wanted a popsicle.
At this, I was filled with unfettered rage. This woman was offering me sympathy. She was taking pity on me, just after she had hurt me. I became ignited with an anger so total and arresting that I couldn’t help but scream. I was not a child who got angry, especially at people that I didn’t know. But I screamed at that nurse. No! NO! I refused to take the popsicle. I refused to accept any pity that she tried to offer. It was insulting. I didn’t want kindness, I didn’t want her to look at me with that sad expression and those watery eyes, not when I had just endured the extreme pain of a fourth round of rabies shots into my already raw, sore, swollen skin.
To accept the popsicle out of her blue latex-gloved hand would have been an admission that I was hurt. That she had hurt me. A white flag, a confession of defeat, a signaling that she had somehow beat me, that she had won. I would not let her win. I stared at the gloved hand that held the box of popsicles, saying no each time that she offered, again and again, trying to tempt me with different colors and flavors. No. No. NO. The harder she tried, the angrier I got. I would have taken another round of rabies shots over a popsicle. I would have accepted more pain just so that I wouldn’t have to endure the insulting kindness.
Thus began my aversion to pity.
But it wasn’t only an aversion to people offering me pity– it was a complete and total refusal to give anyone a reason to feel pity towards me at all.
Afterward, you came to visit me in the hospital. You brought me a small balloon on a stick. It was pink and it had the Disney princesses on it, I remember. But you didn’t come to gawk at me with pity and sympathy. You weren’t upset or scared. You just wanted to know when I would be back at school. No condolences, just a balloon as a show of solidarity and an urge to get well soon– not just as a cliche, but as an earnest demand.
(See? This part is about you, too.)
Thereafter, my new mission in life began: to grit and bear any and all pain. To swallow it down, to eliminate all opportunities for pity, and to ultimately become un-pitiable. No one would ever see my pain, whether it be physical or emotional. At five years old, holding that balloon on a stick and looking into the cartoon princess’ eyes, I made that decision. I would lock the sensation of pain away behind a door in my mind and never, ever open it again.
(And you would be there, too, helping to hold the door closed.)
When we were little, you used to put your desk chair under the doorknob so that your mom couldn’t get into your room and drive me home when it was time for me to go.
But this part isn’t about you, and I apologize for bringing this up. I have to stop making it about you. This is supposed to be about me.
(It’s the same idea, though. I can’t tell this story without you in it, because you’re locked in here with me. Me without you is nothing. It’s not a mirror or a portrait, it’s a black hole. It’s a house with all the lights turned off– it’s your house, with your bedroom window dark and empty. Every time I drive by your house, I look into the darkness of your window.)
(I need you to know that.)
This has to be about me, me, mine. I have to get back to the story. Correction: my story.
In the middle, there was pain. When I was a young teenager, I did horseback riding. An aspect of my life that you had no interest in whatsoever.
(Ha! I found a part of this story that you’re not in!)
I was around 13 or 14 years old, and I was competing in a horse show. When you participate in an equestrian competition, you have to look perfect– a white button-up shirt, a crisp navy blazer, a pair of pristine tan breeches, and a hairnet that keeps every strand in place. I was just about to get on my horse and step into the ring. All of my barn mates and family members were there watching as I grabbed the reins so that I could mount and enter the gates.
At that moment, my horse whipped his head up at full force. His head, weighing in at 100 pounds, crashed directly into my face. There was an audible crack as it connected with my nose, and I instantly lost my vision. My brain clanged around the inside of my skull like a bell, and white noise blasted into my ears.
In that moment, I remember having only one thought. It came into my mind and took over my cognition before any ounce of pain could register: No.
At that split second, inside the tiny black room that was my consciousness, I decided that I would not yell out in pain. I would not cry. I would not fall to the ground. And I would NOT get a single drop of blood on my clothes.
I stood there, blinded, and bent over so that the blood gushing out of my face would land in the grass rather than on my body. I took my glove off and pressed my hand into my nose to clot the bleeding. My family and colleagues stood around me, watching, silent and unmoving. I gave no signs that I had been possibly concussed. Or that I might have had a broken nose. Or that I currently couldn’t see or hear anything. I stood there, leaned over, with one hand holding my face and the other stretched outward as to ward everyone away.
Suddenly my hearing came back, and I could make out the announcer calling the riders into the ring. My vision hadn’t fully returned yet, but I made someone give me a leg up onto my horse. I put my hand back into my glove so that the judges wouldn’t be able to see the blood that had crusted onto my fingers. Somehow, I forced my nose to stop bleeding through sheer willpower alone. I sucked the remaining blood out of the back of my nose and gulped it down. And I entered the ring. With each step the horse took, another gush of hot liquid made its way down the back of my throat, and I willed myself to swallow it. I locked all of the pain away and focused on the competition.
I won first place.
When I exited the ring, I smiled at my family. They stared back at me in horror. My teeth were bloodstained, red saliva clinging in between my gums and dripping down the corners of my mouth.
I wish you could have seen me at that horse show. I like the image of me, grinning with a terrifying, bloody smile, drooling red and holding a blue first-place ribbon, looking at you, with you offering not a trace of pity, and instead grinning back at me with pride. I think you would’ve liked to be there. I would have liked it if you had been.
(We used to joke that you have an alarmingly low level of empathy for other people. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I do think that you have a refreshingly low level of pity for other people. I want to thank you for that. Can I thank you for that?)
One time, when I was at the barn, I had been violently thrown off of my horse. He had bucked me off and sent me flying through the air and into the hard-packed dirt of the ring. In the moment, I had allowed myself approximately five seconds to lie on the ground before getting back up and onto the horse. Afterwards, once the ride was over and the horse was back out in the pasture, I cried. Not because I was injured (which I was, and severely so), but because I was frustrated.
My trainer came up to me and asked me something that I’ll never forget. He said: “Are you crying because you’re hurt, or because you’re upset?”
There was no pity in his voice. It was a question of logical assessment. It was something that you would’ve said to me. Now, I knew that I was crying because I was upset, because I was frustrated and overwhelmed, and insulted. But to admit that I had some sort of mental weakness was unbearable.
And I couldn’t admit that I was in physical pain, either, because I didn’t actually give a shit about that. The pain was a non-issue, something I wouldn’t ever let myself cry about. So I told him: “Both.” I told him it was both because admitting to one or the other was impossible. Admitting to crying because I was hurt would betray physical weakness, and admitting to crying because I was upset would betray mental weakness. And either would elicit an opportunity to be pitied. Even though my weakness was entirely mental, I couldn’t own up to it. So I watered the whole thing down by falsely claiming “both.”
When I picture myself, I picture you, too. Both of us. I cannot look back into a time when you were not there, because you’ve always been there. In the memories of my childhood, you are always in my sight. If I picture my feet walking down the sidewalk, yours are there next to mine. More importantly, you and I are always going in the same direction. We used to walk towards the same thing. At least back then, I knew that where I was going mattered, because when I got there, you’d be there, too.
You always yelled at me for following you around in stores. Instead of going off to do my own browsing, I would just trail behind you and look at whatever you were looking at. I’m sorry about that. I couldn’t help it.
(But I can’t really be sorry, not when you’re gone now. I’m glad for it, glad for my incessant following and trailing. Glad that when I think of me, I think of both of us.)
When we were nineteen, you moved away to go to school down south. You had only been gone for one week when I drove down to visit you. However, right before I left to see you, I developed an unbelievably painful cyst that made it almost impossible for me to walk.
I remember lying in bed, practically immobile, the day before I was supposed to leave. I thought to myself, I’m not going to let this stop me. I am not going to let anything stop me, least of all this. I was in that tiny dark room of my consciousness again, just like when my horse hit me in the face.
(Had it been anyone else, anyone else in the world that I was going to visit, I would have canceled the trip. The pain was so bad that I can barely remember anything from that time, except for that one moment of misguided clarity when I decided to go forth. When I refused to be stopped.)
So I went. I was there for four days. And for those four days, I held it together. I limped along the city streets, up and down stairs, and on and off of subways. Through farmer’s markets, art museums, and around your college campus, all without complaint. Because damn it, I got the chance to be with you one last time, and I wasn’t going to waste it. I was going to grit and bear the pain so that I could walk beside you for just four more days.
I was sure that those four days would be my final days on earth, and I was sure that trip was the last thing I would ever do. I felt as though I had carried my cross, and once it was over, everything would be over. Including the physical pain of the cyst, which was becoming increasingly unbearable, as well as the other pain. The scarier pain that was looming ever closer by the minute: the pain of losing you for good. Once I left the city and went back home, there would be nothing left in the world for me. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle both the physical and emotional pain, especially without you there to remind me to be un-pitiable and to keep the chair under the doorknob. So I convinced myself that it would all soon be over.
We stood on the sidewalk outside of your apartment building at the end of the fourth day. Before I got in the car to leave, I said, “I’m sorry.” I apologized for being in pain. You said, “Don’t be sorry.”
(Ha! Isn’t it perfect? I was compelled to apologize for my pain, and you couldn’t accept the apology. No commiseration, no pity, no sympathy. Just flat-out refusal. Thank God for that. If you had shown me pity, I think that I would’ve died right there on the spot.)
Your words held me together for the entire drive back up the coast. But the second that I reached my destination, the levee broke. I arrived home and you were not there with me. You were no longer there to walk beside me. I could travel all throughout the city, for miles and miles, limping and hobbling, no matter how much pain I was in because you were there walking next to me. As long as I could see your feet beside mine, I could keep going. Now that you were gone, there was nothing holding it all back. I couldn’t choke down the physical pain anymore because there was a worse pain– the pain of my loss. My loneliness set in. You were not there anymore. It was over, and yet I was still alive. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
(Remembering this makes me want to apologize.)
I lost it. The day after we left each other in the city was the worst day of my life, and the fact that I spent the entire day uncontrollably crying in the emergency room was only half of the reason why.
I remembered my trainer’s question. Are you crying because you’re hurt, or because you’re upset?
Both. Both. This time, it was the truth.
I missed my friend, and it hurt. Everything hurt. I missed my friend, and I would never stop missing my friend. That pain is something I can never swallow down. It will choke me for the rest of my life.
What I’m trying to say is that this whole thing is about you.
(When I say “this whole thing,” I mean “me”.)
Again, I am apologizing. And I know you can’t accept the apologies, but that makes me need to say them more. I’m sorry that I can’t have my own life, and I’m sorry that my pain can’t just be my own. I’m sorry that I keep dragging you into everything. Now I’m the one putting the chair underneath the door and locking you inside the room that is my mind. It’s selfish of me.
This is me admitting that I’ve been selfish, but it’s the kind of selfishness that moves in the wrong direction. I’ve made this about you instead of me (that’s called deflection). I need to be selfish in the right direction (that’s called responsibility).
I know that I need to learn that some things are about me. I’m learning about responsibility. I’m learning that I have to feel things. I can’t just swallow the blood, smile with red teeth, and expect to keep winning blue ribbons. I have to let myself hit the ground. This is me hitting the ground. This is me telling you, this is me trying to say: I can’t do this without you. Not “can’t” as in “don’t want to,” but “can’t” as in “it’s physically impossible for me to live my life without you being a part of everything I do.” But I have to try.
(I have to learn how to write about myself without writing about you.)
I have to be responsible for myself, no matter how much it hurts. And I have to feel that hurt, I can’t swallow it down or shove it in a glove or lock it behind a door with a chair under the doorknob.
This is me saying that from now on, I’m going to try and make my life my own.
So what is the ending of my story? In the end, there was… Well, I don’t know, because the end hasn’t come yet. Despite my beliefs that I can’t go on without you, here I am, going on. Pain and all, just as I did with the nose and the cyst. Going on without you hurts, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s how to persevere. This kind of perseverance is new to me, though, and the image of my feet walking alone is difficult for me to endure. But I’m trying. For you, I’m trying.
Just because you’re gone doesn’t mean that I’m gone, even though it feels that way. So what’s left?
Me. I’m left. And I have to figure out what that means, what “me” means. This story actually has to be about me now.
When the end of my story finally does come, I hope it will be just like the beginning, and that you will be there, too. But this time, I hope that I will be there– I as in me, and you as in you. Me, mine. You, yours. Hopefully, when our final days come, I will look down at the space next to my feet and yours will be there, and I won’t have to say “I’m sorry” anymore, because I’ll be able to write about myself without unfairly bringing you into it, and there will be no need for chairs under doorknobs. I hope that when I look into the mirror, I can see my own reflection– and I hope that I will see the reflection of you standing next to me as well. No need for portraits.