Her birthday was two Fridays ago, on August 18, but she hasn’t been alive to celebrate them in more than 37 years. Remember the number 37- it matters later. She was one of the first loves of my life, I felt so deeply loved BY her, that when I was too young to know better and too insecure to make wise choices, I married a man on her birthday, thinking it would cement she and I together.
I always think about her the week of her birthday. I remember her fingers and the sound of the beans she would snap, freshly picked from her garden or my Aunt’s garden. She and food are braided together in my memories-food she liked, food she cooked as five grandchildren yammered around the kitchen and later, when she was sick and living with us, food she would let me sneak to her plate as I hid it because it was food I didn’t like. Not a single step was taken on a NYC sidewalk in August unless it was accompanied by a thought of her. She takes up that much space in my heart and colors so much of my happy childhood memories.
She lived in a time when leaving a marriage of more than 20 years would be called ‘a failed marriage’ and that marriage I started on her birthday all of those years later, also failed. For the longest time, it was the only thing at which I’d failed and it was certainly the first thing at which I’d failed. My life seemed lucky, touched by angels-everything I did worked out and if I set my mind on it, it happened. Failure was foreign to me when I found myself divorced….at age 26.
Not much will make a person feel like a failure the way being divorced, homeless, broke (thank you for emptying our bank account and taking every last penny I earned working two jobs while you were in Dental School) will. It is humiliating to have to move to your parents’ basement when you thought you were going to slink off to the suburbs as the wife of a Dentist. Now, to be fair, he and I both detonated the marriage and all these years later, I will tell you that it was because we failed to be honest with ourselves. We were wrong from the start and we simply took too long to admit it to ourselves. We failed at the most fundamental thing in life: carefully asking ourselves ‘is this what we REALLY want?’
When failure strikes first, it strikes fiercely and powerfully and it can barge in and hover. It is easy to mistake failing AT something or experiencing a failure with BEING a failure because failure is this obnoxious animal that just stands there, making certain we notice it. It knocks over most things in it’s path to get our attention but failure is not an adjective. Failure is a verb to conjugate or even a noun. Try it, conjugate ‘fail.’ I’ll wait.
The lesson in failure for me each and every time, is: What did I really want? Can I sit down in the mess and look at the shards, pull them in a mosaic and consider it better or beautiful? Can this new thing be even better? When I was divorced, I came to identify a truth buried sixteen feet below the layers of pleasing and layers of autopilot- that I did not want marriage, kids and life in the suburbs. I was doing what others always talked about it and what the message was blasted from the churches we attend: a woman will be A wife, A Mother and A helpmate and this is what it will look like and this is how you will be better at it. No one ever talked about what it looked like to be single, to travel, to build a successful career. I wanted those things and I went after them. My shards made a mosaic and then, over time, the glass softened. It would be more than a decade before I would marry again and John once told me that while he was sorry I went through that pain, he is glad it led me to NYC and to him. He understood what I did not- that smashing the window let me out in the air and I was only doing things to chip at the glass. Something bigger needed to hand me the hammer.
I failed more times. I still fail. I fail to bolt down into moments. I fail to show up in my marriage. I fail at being a daughter, a sister and a friend. I even failed to get this post finished in the time I’d planned.
The gift of being this age is that I have never been this age. Forty-two year old me is in here with twelve year old me and twenty-nine year old me. All of those lessons are bundled and while failing still stings, I am better at applying the baking soda and cold water. The exhale of pain and the inhale of “what now?”
If fear sneaks in quietly, failure comes in with wide elbows and a booming voice, kicking in a door and knocking over a few things. It wants your attention. It demands change. I don’t think failure ever shows up to ruin the show, just the illusion.
My grandmother left a marriage after two decades. Her marriage was failing from the beginning, she was failing herself by staying. Because she left, she became braver in other areas and when she was diagnosed and dying, she had been living with us. I have the sweetest memories of time with her, laughter with her, conspiring to not eat certain foods, the sound of her fingers snapping those vegetables, I have all of that because she moved past failing, past the illusion and into the next chapter. The opinions of others in her tiny town mattered less than her life’s joy.
Because she removed the giant “Here to Serve” and “Here to Please” button that women so often smack on our foreheads, she flew to Germany in 1971, all by herself, to meet her grandson. Women from towns with one stop sign in a barrel didn’t do that. Because she admitted her marriage was not working anymore and she stepped away from it, she had adventures, woke up daily with grandchildren and her adult son and sat down at the table with her daughter-in-law, whom my Mom called “Mom.” She became a parent when she was a teen and so her son was 30 when she died and she was younger than I am now. Three generations of Johnsons feeling sorrow at too young an age for each of us.
I plan my mammograms each year around her birthday. I’m now surprised and a little shocked that that day once meant ‘anniversary’, then meant ‘failed’, and now means ‘I am taking care of and managing my health’. I was right, August 18 has cemented us together.
Failure sucks. It sucks sweaty donkey balls. It hurts and crushes, it robs your appetite and your sleep and it steals joy. It often kicks you in the knees and pushes your face down in the floor. I don’t think it means to, I don’t think failure has ill intentions. It’s a demanding and clumsy animal but it wants only one thing: to get us to fresh air. Sure, it wants to teach us, but I think it first understands that we need oxygen, the lesson comes later. I have a tattoo on my right foot, but if I were to get a second tattoo, it would be: This too, shall pass. (somewhere, my 9th grade English teacher is rolling her eyes at my choice of words for a permanent marker on my skin)
We will all die. Every last one of us—we have this in common. We will all fail. Many times. We have this in common. Figuring out how to best spend our hours and learning from the failures will define us. Will we become wise? Bitter? More compassionate?
Our bodies are the cartons we were shipped in. They will fail us too. That will be how we transition—an ultimate failure of breath or of a heart beat, a disease over which we have no control or an awful accident we never saw coming. Loss always trades itself for gain.
Here is where we meet ’37’ again: she died when I was 11. I will celebrate my 11th wedding anniversary in two weeks and I married John when I was 37. I still assert that God loves leaving little love clues and Bertha Mae Johnson was one hell of a woman. She failed perfectly.