On Saturday late into the morning our home is filled with the smell of cleaning supplies, dryer sheets and newly opened lavender Glade plugins. I clean the bathrooms while he loads and unloads the dishwasher. Our final chore is always folding laundry together. Midway through I let out a noticeable sigh. He pauses with childlike curiosity and a slight reminisce of distress. “What’s wrong?”, he asks with worry in his eyes. “Nothing”, I say smiling and jumping back into the present moment. “Nothing at all.” I wonder how many more “nothings” I’m allowed before I’ll have to explain what’s behind the sigh.
Behind the sigh it’s 2008. I’m 23 eating lunch at an Olive Garden in Downers Grove with four work friends, all women in their late 30s. One of the women is a social worker at the school where I work as the building substitute. In the car ride home she looks at me and says, “Sweetie, I know I’m not your mom but it’s not okay for your boyfriend to call you 27 times during a lunch. That’s not normal behavior.”
Behind the sigh it’s 2010. I’m standing in the mirror of the children’s bathroom in my parent’s house. My mom steps in to try to help me comb my awkwardly short ½ relaxed, ½ natural hair. She asks if I plan to change from the too small clothes I’m clearly 10lbs too heavy for. My face releases the deep pain I’m in. My dad peers in from the hall saddened by his complete inability to understand or help. One month prior I was fired from a job for taking a moral stance. Run out of my apartment by gunshots, bedbugs and brokeness I was back home again. Today was my 1st day at a real estate job showing luxury apartments to people who weren’t living with their parents at age 25.
Behind the sigh it’s 2011. I’m lying on the floor of my studio apartment gasping for air trying to convince my lungs that they can function without my heart. This man I loved, trusted, and connected with over goals and dreams, has casually said to me, “Why would I want to be with you when….”.
Behind the sigh it’s a yucky, rainy July 3rd day in 2013. My friends drag me out of the house for an indoor barbeque at the Silver Room in Wicker Park. I meet the only guy in the room who thought to bring cups to a BYOB event.
“Nothing’s wrong”, I repeat, gazing beyond him through the floor to ceiling window at the Benjamin Franklin bridge to Jersey. “Nothing at all.”
Behind the sigh is a millisecond, a minute moment in which I’m appreciating, asking myself, how did I get here? I am no longer that girl at the Olive Garden table getting 27 phone calls, nor am I that girl looking in the mirror feeling so much self-hatred or the girl gasping for breath on the studio floor because some boy deemed her unworthy.
I sigh because I’m finally happy in this moment, and I know how many challenging moments I had to push through, how many life lessons I had to learn and relearn in order to be here in this moment folding clothes by the window. And most of all I sigh because I’m amazed at how close I was in every categorical struggle to obtaining something better. I was so close to meeting my spouse, so close to finding financial stability, so close to finding a fulfilling career, and the list goes on. But in moments of pain and frustration it was impossible to imagine that I was 1 or 2 more lessons away from discovering really great things.
To quote motivational speaker and author, Jim Rohn, “Don’t wish that it were easier, wish that you were better.” External love, or a chance meeting at a great party isn’t what saved me. I was better before that party. I learned to be better, better at loving myself, better at identifying and appreciating the strengths I brought to a relationship, or the workplace, or even friendships. And in appreciating my own self worth, in increasing my own self-efficacy, I planted the seed of expectation for everyone, and everything around me to step up to a higher standard of respect, and quality.