The looks I got when I let her, at age 8, put rainbow stripes in her hair…. But, why not?
The summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I was 16 years-old, 2,000 miles from my home in Seattle, and had just discovered both cocaine and the joys of sex. Which, even at that young age, I knew went very well together.
And which will sound odd when I swear to you, up and down and all kind of sideways, that I was a good kid. I was smart and kind and talented and all those things that people tell you about a kid before divulging something seemingly awful, like that they spent the summer doing cocaine and a British boy they met in a bar.
I was terribly unhappy, frightened, angry and desperately in need of change, but I was a good kid. (Like most of the kids you see who are also all of those things, and also a mystery to you.) I was flunking out of school, entirely by choice. My teachers kept telling me how smart I was. I kept telling them to fuck off.
I was in Minneapolis for the summer. I was doing some summer theater program there, which was really just a way to get away from my home. If you asked 16 year-old me, I would have told you that my parents were monsters. Horrible and violent people who were out to get me. Indeed, my home was loud and scary, things flying left and right. Accusations, threats, promises, the occasional fist or lamp. Alcohol flowed like anger, or was it the other way around, anger flowed like alcohol? It was not a happy place.
But my parents were not monsters. My mother and her husband (at the time, the third of four) were deeply scarred and broken people. They brought out the worst in each other. They were not out to get me, I now know, but they were trying to save themselves from the demons within, and from each other. They had no tools to protect from me their own torment. It’s not that they were out to get me, it’s just that the fires often raged so violently that the flames singed anyone in their path.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t the kid they wanted. They tried everything to get me to study, or even go to school. Nope, wasn’t about to do either. They told me I’d never get into a good school, or get a good job. I was a constant source of disappointment and anger.
I believe now that they were genuinely worried (though unable to see their own role in the drama of my teenage life.) At the time, I just thought they hated me because I wasn’t good enough.
When I packed my bags to head to Minneapolis, I knew in my heart that I never ever wanted to go back home. Ever. I wanted out, no matter what it took. I was willing to do anything. I thought about prostitution. Suicide. Whatever it took.
And as such, hanging out at a bar just off campus, doing cocaine and a British boy (who was my same age, but in town for a year because of his father’s work,) seemed like as good a path as any.
Shooting pool in that bar. Drinking shit beer in dirty glasses. And being totally free, it was a taste of what I needed so badly. I was happy. I was not afraid.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, but for the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted it to feel like.
I was just free. Anything was possible.
**** As I write this, it is the summer between my daughter’s junior and senior year in high school. She is 16. We are in Minneapolis, 2,000 miles away from our home in Seattle. I have not been here since I was exactly her age.
This place is special to me, because my life began here. I left home, came here, and never went back to the torment of any kind of abusive home.
I hated my parents. I never wanted to be a parent. My life was going to look nothing like the one I had come from. All of this was decided in Minneapolis. When I was 16.
But, as I write this, my daughter is asleep (or at least trying to be) in the bed next to mine, in a hotel, with her arms wrapped around the stuffed panda that she has slept with every night of her life since she was a year old.
She is a straight A student, AP classes, and might be the happiest person I’ve ever known. As far as I can tell, we are very close. Except when I ask her to please let me SnapChat with her boyfriend about why I love the word “moist.” But, I tell myself, she’ll even look back at those moments fondly. She is, after all, laughing hysterically. Like, crying tears.
We are here because she is competing in the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championships. Which is to say, we are here because she is dedicated and focused and works hard and in every way the exact opposite of me as a teen. She is more than I ever could have dreamed of as a child, a human. A constant source of pride and joy.
The differences in us, at 16, in Minneapolis, are mind-boggling to me.
Like, how can this be the fruit of my (moist) loins? It doesn’t even seem possible.
I didn’t even know kids like her when I was in high school. I mean, I saw them, but I didn’t know them. Those over-achieving kids, they always seemed stressed out to me. I told myself that they must have awful parents who pushed them too hard.
I was never going to be like that. I wasn’t going to be like my parents. And I wasn’t going to be like those parents.
Indeed, as she grew up, I went out of my way to not be like that. Whatever “that” is.
I got a lot of crap from people. I didn’t accelerate her in school. I didn’t get her tutors. I didn’t give a flying fuck if, as a kid, she went to the “right” school, or played the “right sports” or…. I asked her, all the time, what she wanted.
I asked her to tell me what made her happy and what made her sad. I never told her what to do or wear, who to be. That was all for her to figure out.
The only thing I really taught her is that you have to always think about how your behavior impacts the world, and people, around you. You are responsible for you own safety and happiness. I taught her that in every way I could think of.
The rest, she must have picked up on her own.
And it’s such a mystery to me. I was watching her workout today, in front of the giant sign that says “your Olympic journey begins here,” and I was all like “what the fuck, how did this happen?”
How did such an angry teenager from such an unhappy home turn into the happiest mother in the world, with this incredible kid?
No, really, I don’t have the answer.
But, her Olympic journey? I mean….. (I should ask her if that is her dream. Because, if it is, it might well, really, be kicking off here this weekend. Team USA is here scouting. So, that’s a thing.)
**** My life changed in this city. Everything. It set me on a path that some looked at with horror and judgment, but that led me to this moment, right here.
Most would look at my daughter’s path and deem it some degree of “perfect.”
But here’s the thing, both of our paths, however different, led us to this moment. Right here. We are standing in the same place, together.
When I was her age, in this city, I was doing all the illicit things that parents hope their kids won’t do and that cops will lock you up for. She, on the other hand, is the kid that I think my parents always wanted.
I was that kid that people talk about in hushed tones. But, as an adult, I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve done with my life. I also, you know, raised this kid.
All of which forces me to be so much less angry about my own childhood. I mean, it made me. It gave me this life, this perspective. Ultimately, it gave me this daughter that I am so in awe of.
I have no idea how this happened. I had no idea what I was doing, I just had a very long list of things not to do.
I don’t think that any parent, anywhere, really has any idea what they hell they’re doing. I don’t.
I won’t call it luck, that she and I are here tonight. That she’s one of the best at her sport, and is vying for the attention of Team USA. It wasn’t luck. It’s been almost 17 years of dedication to admitting that I don’t know what I’m doing. So I just adopted the Hippocratic oath to parenting: First, do no harm.
I assumed that she came out good. That my job, as her mother, was to simply not fuck her up. I figured that she was the only person who would ever be able to figure herself out, and my job was just to keep her safe while she did that.
On the airplane over here I told her that I saw my job as being like the bumper rails they put up when kids go bowling. You get that wide runway to bounce around and do what you’re gonna do. I just stop you from falling into the gutter.
But, as I said that, I knew that anyone looking at me when I was 16 would have said I was in the gutter. There are so many names that people call “girls like me.” You’ve probably called them that too, though not to their face, of course.
I took night classes the second semester of my senior year, because I needed to if I wanted to graduate on time. My daughter is taking AP classes, because she pretty much finished high school this year, and got admitted to college. She spends her evenings lifting weight, which is paying for her college. And makes her happy.
But we’re both right here, together, at this point in time.
From different paths.
And there are infinite other paths that could have been taken, and still gotten here. Or gotten somewhere else entirely, which would also be amazing.
It’s just odd how both our paths seemed to use Minneapolis as a launching point. When we’re 16, the summer between our junior and senior years in high-school.
I have no idea how this competition is going to go. She doesn’t lift for 2 more days.
But I really and truly don’t care how she does.
This moment, right now, feels like the win. Even though she is now, finally, sound asleep. And I’m not, because I’m hanging on to this moment for as long as I possibly can.
She’s still my baby.