At 42, I left the cocoon of my life as a mother, and set off to a friend’s seaside cabin in Maine.
I went alone–with my laptop, my journal and my drawing pad–planning a long weekend of retreat. I spread my personal things throughout the cabin–into the second bedroom, the loft, onto the desk and coffee tables, and even onto the porches; but I couldn’t fill the absence of my family.
When night came, this vacuum left me engulfed by peril–from the beautiful lapping water right off the front porch, to the Maine woods on each of the other sides of the cabin. There weren’t any neighbors to speak of–not within shouting distance–and I had this creepy seventies horror-film fear that someone or something could be lurking in the pines outside the window beside my bed.
My imagination prevented me from falling to sleep for hours into every night, and woke me early, before the dawn, exhausted, but relieved to have one less night of terror to face. What were these feelings and where did they come from? Was I experiencing some existential theater? Unresolved childhood trauma? Was I really in danger? Or was this simply the dark chasm between motherhood and the return to self?
With a map in hand, I jumped into my vacant mini-van, and drove toward Acadia National Park in the dark. A visit to the park hadn’t been part of my plans, but the previous guests had left a pass behind so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.
I decided to at least go see the Park, assess its merit, and return to the cabin to write in the comforting light of afternoon.
I never did return to the cabin that afternoon or during any of the following days until late into the evening, because once I entered the Acadia, I was gone. It was if I had mistakenly slipped through the cracks of my life into a slice of heaven. My small contracted mother-chasm-self expanded there–into all those open vowels, tall trees, mountaintops, lakes and streams, ocean and sky, boulders and cliffs.
On the second dawn, I drove to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to greet the rising sun atop the highest peak on the East coast. Before the day grew warm, I climbed to the top of another peak, Penobscott, and stood there alone—with mountains and water and air in every direction. On the way down, I formed a crush on a bolder and even took a self-timed photo of us together before I pulled myself away.
I swam at Echo Lake and at Sandy Beach where the ocean waters barely crested 50 in July. In the afternoons, I journaled beside Jordan Pond with a pot of tea and a basket of popovers and jam. I fell in love with Acadia– and with myself there.
Why then, driving around its stunning Loop Road, did I see myself leaping from the rocks to the water below?
Were these delirious daydreams? Blissed out fantasies? Suicidal threats?
Desiring death made no sense… because I was so happy.
Happy– and exhausted– I suddenly realized–from a lifetime of holding on so tightly that I finally wanted to just let go.
This exhaustion began, not with motherhood, but with a childhood steeped in fear and abandonment–influenced by birth order (first), alcoholism (my mother’s, grandmothers’ & aunts) and divorce (my parents.)
I had been “gripping” for as long as I could remember, and I was ready to let go—forever–right here at Acadia, the closest thing to heaven on Earth. I saw myself turn the wheel so that I would fly off the road ringing the ocean and head into the air over one of those amazing cliffs; or parking my van and carefully crossing the road before jumping–right into the water or into the rocky beach below.
These images came to me over and over again, even after I returned home–sweet Acadia beckoning me to death.
There had been two other times in my life when I’d “imagined” suicide. Once was at Christmas, the year my parents divorced. The second was decades later in the in the winter following my mother’s death.
But if I was so ready to die, what was this fear I felt each night in the cabin?
I’ve felt it before, I realized–during a particularly poignant gulf of understanding with my husband, so that even though he was beside me, he felt miles away, so very small—or just the opposite–so close that he was a smothering giant.
This fear-induced delusion first came at four-year’s old in the huge expanse of my grandparents’ bedroom, entombed in the hum of the air conditioner, and manifested by high fever.
Where was my mother?
Where was mother when those feverish images returned years later so that the cellar shelves grew closer and closer to my bed– and then so far away that I had no idea where I was or if I existed apart from them at all?
And where were her arms when my beloved, “Licorice” disappeared; and when I shook in terror after the neighbors family--all but the boy my age–died in a fire; or when my grandmother and aunts were killed by a sixteen-wheeler; and when I lost my first and second pregnancies?
In the face of my own abandonment, how could I ever leave my children? Who would be there for them in the horror of that loss if I drove off the cliff?
Or, (and here’s the kernel of my fear): If I found that new career that I longed for?
I’m the one who brings the forgotten teddy bear to school when Aidan calls home in tears. I the one who makes the lunches, gives the kisses, pops the popcorn, waits for the school bus.
I tend the secret fears, hold them back at night, tuck them in.
Are my arms, my heart, my self even wide open enough now to the gift of my children? Or do I stand, protected, like my mother, resigned to the inevitable loss?
How can I love that so deeply which ends?
And how do I let it all go without giving up?
Kelly Salasin, 2006
(Note: Upon the realization of my great exhaustion, I took a three-month “pause” from career searching–and just about everything else–experiencing a long-awaited “honeymoon” with self–and writing!)