Monday, October 29, 2012

How Do You Know Who You Are?

“How do you know who you are?” asks artist and author Maira Kalman in her book, The Principles of Uncertainty. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve been a fan of Kalman’s work since I first saw her blog, “And the Pursuit of Happiness” for the NYT. So when I saw this post about her at Brain Pickings today, I was once again struck by her musings.

It’s something on my mind today, this question, “How do you know who you are?”

Ten years ago today, my mother died. I dread the approach of the 29th of October like nothing else. It’s coming up, I think. Is there any way to get out of it? It’s silly, really. Well, it is silly and not silly all at once. On the one hand, it is only a day. To be blunt: my mother is still dead, every other day of the year. It’s not really any better or worse on this particular date, now is it?

Nonetheless, it is still a day—the day—that, ten years ago, marked the worst day of my life. At one moment, she was here, and the next, she was not.

So every October 29th, at some point—sometimes at multiple moments throughout the day—I feel it all over again. I feel the exact feeling in my stomach that I felt 10 years ago, when I heard a nurse say, “Her heart did stop.” It is a swift kick in the stomach. When it happened this morning, I was rubbing my eyes, convincing myself to shake off my sleepy feeling. And then: BAM. I felt it.

Thanks, October 29th. I’m awake now.

After my mother died, I began thinking of my life in two parts: before Mom died, and after. Things were one way, and then they were another. I also began to think of myself in two ways: how I was before Mom died, and how I was after. It’s really no wonder one day can seem so monumental! I’m thinking of my entire life split in pieces from it.

How do you know who you are, when you are mapping so much of your identity from this loss? I hate it. I want to stop. I think of ways to stop. But it doesn’t really work that way—instead, the elaborate daydreams begin. It’s a little game I play in my brain, where I wonder what my life would be like, what I would be like, if my mother hadn’t died.

It’s a dangerous game, this game of what ifs and if onlys—and I’m tired of it, quite frankly. Of course, it might seem completely self-absorbed that, on the day of my mother’s death, I’m asking all these questions about myself, and not her. But while it’s about me, it’s still about her, all the same.

Of course I am not the same as I was when my mom died, and thank God for that! After all, I was a teenager—18, just starting freshman year of college. Now I am closer to 30 than 20. And so when I think of the question, “Who am I?” it ties into this day so perfectly because on this day, when I particularly miss my mother and feel the utter finality of her absence, I think, I never knew my mother as an adult. She never knew me. And who in the hell am I, anyway?

I don’t always have the answer to that, but I have an idea. Sometimes it changes. Sometimes I like the answer. Sometimes I don’t.

But if my mother taught me anything, it was this very important lesson:

You can be pleased with nothing when you are not pleased with yourself.

So what if I don’t have it all figured out. So what if I can’t always exactly pinpoint the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Today I am a woman who misses her mother. Tomorrow, I will still be that woman, but it will no longer be this day, and maybe I can think of something else. All I can really try to do is be pleased with the honest answer to the question, “Who in the world am I?” and maybe, just maybe, if I’m pleased with it, it’s not unlikely that she would be too.

Like Kalman says:

What would happen?

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