Eight months ago, I sat on the edge of a dormant volcano above the clouds in Maui at 4:30 a.m. The darkness wrapped around me was absolute; the figure of my friend Erin, sitting not more than two feet away from me, barely visible. It was a moonless night, and a scattering of stars spread over us. I laid back against the rock outcropping and studied the unfamiliar constellations; Hawaiian skies bear little resemblance to my usual Tennessee ones.
The wind blasted my face. In response, I flipped up the collar of my heaviest winter jacket and buried my hands deeper into my pockets. By mid-afternoon I would be in a bikini on warm sand while the ocean lapped against my toes. But here on the rim of Haleakalā, 10,000 feet above the sandy beaches, the pre-dawn temperature was in the 30s with a 40 mph wind.
I couldn’t feel my nose, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t up there for the weather.
Almost imperceptibly at first, the line between sky and sea gradually shifted from black to purple, then lavender, then pink. As the sky lightened, the crowd on our rocky crag thickened. Bleary-eyed tourists and photographers, some wrapped in beach towels because who brings a winter coat to an island paradise, assumed viewing spots to the right and left of us. There were a few words passed back and forth between friends and strangers, but whether due to the hour or the view, we were mostly silent.
As the sun finally crested the horizon, it gilded the clouds spread below us. This is what we’d all crawled out of bed at 3 a.m. and driven across the still-sleeping island for. We were here to watch the world wake up from some of the best seats it has to offer.
For a full minute, I stood there and took it all in. After hours waiting in darkness, the sun’s warmth felt delicious across my face. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply through my nose, and felt a peace spread down to my nearly-frozen toes.
“Did you say something?” Erin murmured, breaking the silence.
I shook my head; the phrase I’d whispered was only for myself. Five words that would end up saving me.
Be where your feet are.
For the better part of the past two years, I’ve been in an ongoing battle to accept that our family is complete. I’ve written about how I want another child and my husband doesn’t. I’ve cried, I’ve argued, I’ve bargained. I’ve spent a not-insignificant sum of money on therapy.
A year ago, I sat in what would be our last counseling session with my frustration boiling over. We’d talked about why I felt the way I did and why my husband Jon felt the way he did. We’d talked about where the communication between us had broken down and how to keep that from happening in the future. I felt like we were in a really good place, except for one thing. I still wanted another baby. And I didn’t know how to stop wanting it.
With a fair amount of accusation in my voice, I said as much to our therapist.
“Listen, the past few sessions have been helpful. I’ve learned how to communicate better, and how to elicit more detailed responses from Jon. But you still haven’t told me what I came here looking for in the first place. How do we resolve this and move past it?”
The therapist smiled; one of those slow, patient smiles that sets my teeth on edge. He registered my annoyance, but he simply continued to hold my gaze until the tears I’d been trying desperately to stifle—because crying in front of a relative stranger is tantamount to torture for me—pricked my eyes and spilled over.
What I had masked as anger was actually pain—deep, wrenching, tearing-me-apart pain. And I was drowning in it. As this realization sunk in, the tears fell harder and faster, and it was then that I understood his smile. The dam he’d been trying to break down for weeks had finally crumbled. My calm, objective, rational approach to why I wanted another child and why Jon didn’t was not the issue. I wasn’t there to learn how to win the argument.
I was there because I’d already lost, and I didn’t know what to do with my pain.
He cleared his throat and said he was going to tell me the same thing he tells any patient who’s grieving. Because that’s what this is, he explained. It’s grief. I was mourning a loss, and just because I’d lost something I never actually had didn’t lessen the pain I was feeling. It was normal and okay to feel sadness, anger, and longing, but I couldn’t carry those emotions with me forever. There was only one way to move on, to keep the grief from consuming me—and my marriage—in the process.
“Focus on what is, and not on what isn’t,” he said.
People can lose entire lifetimes to mourning what they don’t have, he explained. Over time, grief turns to bitterness and resentment, leaving room for little else. I could spend the rest of my days nursing a grudge against Jon for denying me another child. Or, I could focus on what we do have and find contentment and joy in this version of my life.
The choice was mine. Could I let go of what I wanted to embrace what I had?
On that day, the answer was no. I didn’t want to concede defeat. I am tenacious and determined and I wanted this, dammit. For a year I wrestled with my selfishness, trying to find another way to move forward that didn’t involve giving up on what I wanted. I took up exercise and hobbies. I made (and ate) a lot of baked goods. I quit talking about it with anyone. I tried everything I could think of to distract myself from my feelings, living everywhere but in the present moment because there was too much pain there.
And for awhile, it worked. At least, until the morning I stood on a mountaintop in Maui soaking up every single second of where I was and it felt so much … better.
Be where your feet are.
The phrase stuck with me after I came home, and I realized I was finally ready to take my therapist’s advice. I wanted wholeness more than I wanted another baby.
I was ready to focus on what is.
I don’t mean to suggest life became easier in that instant or that once I made up my mind, I never felt a twinge of longing for another child or cried another tear over what I’d lost. I honestly don’t know that anything changed at all, other than I realized how long I’d been emotionally absent and how much more alive I felt when I focused on being present.
And sometimes it’s harder than others. Like when a friend announces a pregnancy. Or I hold someone else’s baby. Or I clear the drawers of another season of clothes that have been outgrown. Then the grief tries to sneak up on me and lead me down the path of What Used To Be or What Will Never Be.
But I’m realizing I don’t have to follow.
I can stop. I can feel the grief and let the tears fall, then take a deep breath. I can look around me and see the beauty of this life in this moment and rest in the knowledge that it’s mine. This life, not that one.
Be where your feet are.
The sun has fully cleared the horizon, and I am starting to sweat in my heavy down coat. One by one, the crowd disperses down the path to the parking lot.
“Ready to go?” Erin asks.
No, not really. But it's time.
We climb down from the boulders and begin to leave. At the trailhead I stop and turn back for the beat of one last deep breath, taking in the contrast between the cratered, barren volcanic landscape and the sparkling ocean that spreads beyond it, the feel of the wind on my face, the sound of the gravel crunching beneath my feet.
When I’m ready, I start walking again.