I peeled off the tape protecting the white ceiling from the newly blue wall below to find, instead of a crisp, straight line, something wavy and imprecise. White dipped down into blue, blue curved up into white.
I had painted four other rooms in the house, and failed with each of them to achieve the razor-sharp border the tape was supposed to create. In each room I had reached a little too far for a difficult spot, stretching dangerously at the top of the step stool, getting wall paint on the ceiling. Attempts to repair blotches of color on white resulted in blotches of white on color. Those I couldn’t immediately wipe off, I left as they were, as evidence of the tremendous effort it was for me, a sixty-year-old widow, to paint it all myself. Not just paint, but move furniture, tape ceilings and floors, un-hang and re-hang pictures, and roll-up and lay back down a rug more than twice as long and almost twice as wide as I am tall. I did it! Look, there!
Imperfection is hard work.
I used to hate making mistakes. I thought I was too smart to screw up, and when I inevitably did, I was mortified, and I’d beat myself up about whatever it was for days, weeks, even—cringing at the memory of it, waking up sweating and panting and wanting to hide. It usually related to work, and happened at every job I’ve ever held, from law practice to selling shoes, from graduate admissions offices to warehouses, from a prominent national non-profit to a call center.
It took decades for me to recognize that my worries were a manifestation of OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder—that caused me to magnify the significance of insignificant things and to set impossibly high standards for myself and the people around me. I would generate worst case scenarios and then run from them as hard as I could. I’d check and recheck emails before hitting “send,” open, reseal and re-open envelopes to check that I hadn’t enclosed the wrong thing. Demons of doubt and anxiety plagued me. I always felt I was one step ahead of disaster.
My overthinking drove my colleagues nuts. My focus on work rather than people demoralized those I supervised. When they failed to show initiative, or didn’t ask for help when they lacked skills, I couldn’t disguise my impatience and disdain. I thought they were too dim to understand how urgent everything was. They thought I was a jerk.
OCD and caregiving made for a choppy career. Between years-long stints at “professional,” salaried jobs were hourly retail, call center and warehouse jobs, and patches of unemployment. Accepting hourly employment was humiliating, at first. I had a law degree and I’m selling shoes? But ours was a one income family, and I was the income. I had quit a very-bad-fit job during a recession, so I did what I had to do. The retail job overlapped the call center job for several months, which made for frequent eighteen hour days.
When my husband was given a terminal diagnosis, my visions of a second home, a secure retirement and “my turn” to have a life at home, were replaced with frantic research to find something that would fight the cancer, or at least slow it down: juicing, water filters, meditation?
It didn’t work. But something else happened: my husband’s ever-present undercurrent of imminent explosive rage, stoked by years of my constant vibe of anxiety and impatience, evaporated, and was replaced with a combination of calm endurance, bravery and ultimately, acceptance, that was both beautiful and devastating to witness. After eighteen months of treatment, when his options were reduced to “feel even worse” or “enjoy the time you have left,” he elected hospice. He felt relieved.
I felt unmasked. The façade I had maintained, playing the part of the person in charge, the one with the answers, the maintainer, repairer, planner and provider, dissolved. The cloak I wore as the caregiver who was “strong” and “optimistic” was instantly ripped away. I felt utterly exposed to a future without a trajectory or a plan: a vast, empty, lonely unknown that was nothing like the life I had imagined.
I surrendered. I accepted that no part of my life could be lived in an imaginary future anymore. It shouldn’t have taken my husband walking calmly toward death to make me realize I hadn’t truly lived, that I was a coward. I had sidelined my talents—singing, writing, acting—to pursue the false security of conventional “success.” That life didn’t include enough kindness, empathy or time with my family. I was ashamed, shocked, and grateful. My husband’s scant eight weeks in hospice were the best eight weeks of our marriage. We rediscovered our deep love for each other and I saw the meaninglessness of my striving. Suddenly, there was peace. I found within myself the gentle, vulnerable, open-hearted person I was when my husband fell in love with me, long ago.
I let go of notions of a future ideal self. I exercise, but I will never have perfect thighs. I style my hair knowing the slightest humidity will turn it back to frizz. I make mistakes, and learn from them. Anxiety still overwhelms me, but belief in a power greater than myself pulls me through. I want to live fully with all my imperfections, now. I want to love, laugh, sing, write, listen, play and take time to be still.
I want to be truly present in caregiving for my grieving adult autistic child, who struggles to understand why her stay-at-home Dad will never will be home again. I try to be grateful for every remaining moment I’m given in this world. My husband’s brave walk and my child’s exquisite, unconditionally loving heart are all the “perfection” I should ever need. Now is all I can know, and I’m working on accepting it as all I should want.
Anne Penway left a short career in law for a long career in non-profit administration and graduate/professional school admissions. Caregiving knocked her off the professional track and found her selling shoes, operating an electric pallet jack, driving a forklift, coordinating volunteers in charity warehouses and embracing financial uncertainty to pursue writing. Anne blogs at www.ridiculouswoman.com and has appeared as a guest blogger on www.WoWblog.me.
Up next, The Shape of Grief.
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.