I shouldn’t have lived.
I stopped breathing when I was a day old. I had sleep apnea where I would stop breathing as I slept. I spent my first 3 weeks in the hospital. When I decided to breath and was allowed to go home, my parents tell me, I was a happy baby. I didn’t cry often or need much. When I was a toddler, I played by myself, entertaining myself for hours alone. I had a great imagination and loved telling myself stories. I always wanted a sister but had a brother instead. He did not entertain himself in the same way as I did although he did have a great imagination. He would play with matchbox cars for hours, lining them up, creating stories. I, on the other hand, needed almost no props, no toys. Occasionally a doll or a Barbie or a stuffed animal would come in handy to help my pretend but mostly the worlds I created lived in my head.
Many children have imaginary friends. I had two imaginary sisters. We were triplets. One was named Beth and she was very serious and smart, and of course wore glasses. Ann was the fun one, I didn’t really know much about her because Beth and I were kindred spirits. I would sit at the dinner table with my plastic glasses with the lenses pushed out while my parents played along with me being Beth. They’d ask me serious questions about which books Beth had read that I had not. Eventually I’d take the glasses off and giggle about how they really thought I was Beth.
Fueling my imagination was a steady stream of literature and information. My dad read to me every single night from the day I was born till I was 4 or 5, then I read each night. I read anything I could get my hands on – books, mail, pamphlets, textbooks, anything. My parents owned loads of books and I read all of them – Greys Anatomy, Reader’s Digest abridged books – all of them.
Sitting in the backseat as we drove around looking for houses was the way my childhood was spent. I would look outside the window to my right and see how the houses were built. I was able to tell the difference between the different builders and developers based on the conversations my parents were having.
I loved going to the open houses because there were always treats. One of the houses was a model home and had an area filled with candy. I filled my pockets with those strawberry candies – the ones with strawberries drawn on the wrapper and with liquid goo on the inside of the hard shell.
I would imagine living in each house we went into as my parents measured and tried to figure out if the house was something we could afford. I would find my bedroom and imagine sitting in it and reading. I would bring my book inside and try it out in different rooms, near different windows. One of the bedrooms, the house of my dreams, had a window seat. I was convinced that this house would be the one that create my perfect life.
When I was 15, I woke up and couldn’t walk. Test after test no one could figure out what was wrong with me. A positive pelvic exam indicated maybe something there. After a surgery, endometriosis was the diagnosis.
I spent 67 days at home my sophomore year in high school. I imagined being in chemistry class instead of trying to decipher chemical properties and ionic bonds at the kitchen table with a heating pad on my belly. I imagined walking from class to class with a backpack on my back instead of someone else carrying my books. I imagined being able to smile again without tears filling my eyes. All my life I wanted to disappear and not take up so much space, I wore big baggy clothes to hide my developed breasts. I could no longer disappear or not talk about my womanhood. Explaining and re-explaining endometriosis to classmates, teachers, and adults made me an expert at gynecological vocabulary. I no longer felt any shame when I would enter a doctor’s office and had to place my feet in the stirrups for another exam with medical students watching. My body was no longer my own but an experiment, a research project. I laid back on the exam table each time and imagined being somewhere else as they told me to relax, as if relaxing would ease the pain I felt as they inserted a speculum and looked inside me, the warmth of the lamp on my bare thighs and buttocks. Relaxing wasn’t going to ease any of it, but imagining being somewhere else, anywhere else did.
When I was 27, I developed blood clots in my leg after spraining my ankle. The doctor prescribed me a dose of blood thinners 10 times the strength he should’ve. My blood was so thin I could’ve bled out with a paper cut I was told. I missed a month of school and couldn’t do recess duty for the remainder of the year.
I sat on the couch with my left leg straight out in front of me, a pillow under my knee to keep my leg semi-elevated. My mom sat on the chair to the right of the couch. The sunshine warmed my outstretched legs. This might’ve been a perfect afternoon if I hadn’t already spent the past 20 days in the same position, imagining what my students were doing, thinking, creating. The pain in my ankle had healed and I only felt pressure in the back on knee occasionally. Feeling better didn’t mean I was better, the vascular specialist explained. He warned that I was in a very dangerous situation and I couldn’t risk it. I needed to take it seriously and heed his warning. I had literally gone from exercising, balancing a household and marriage, to laying on the couch for a month with my mom helping me shower. I had returned to where I was at 15, as an infant. I imagined being capable enough to no longer need the help of my mom in times like these. Is it capability or is it partnership?
When I was 60 miles into an Ironman, I was hit by another cyclist and fractured my pelvis. I rode another 25 miles unsure of what to do. I imagined the hit wasn’t so bad as I stuffed ice cubes down the back of my shorts, tears filling my eyes. I imagined that I had imagined it all and my brain was playing tricks on me. I imagined I was stronger than this moment and I could still complete this race. Once I got off the bike, I imagined how I would explain this to anyone. I imagined how I could excuse all the missed experiences, missed time with friends and family,
I can sustain anything. I can make the best out of a bad situation. I can make lemonade out of rancid lemons. My imagination fuels me through situations that are not ideal. I can imagine myself, will myself into believing that this time is the last, or it’s not as bad as I think it is. I can create wild stories about why I am not a priority or why I don’t deserve something better. My imagination is a blessing and a curse. The story I create about my life is of happiness and prosperity but when I look in the rearview mirror I see something very different. The shadow that darkens everything is much clearer when looking back then when looking forward. The purpose of imagination is to see things shinier and better in the future but I’d argue it’d be even better if I could use that same method as I look backward. My imagination is the breath that I needed in my first weeks of life, strength that I needed navigating adolescence and a grown woman’s disease, patience in healing my veins, and foresight in getting off my bike before further damage was done. My imagination is the oxygen in my veins and the out-breath every second. It fuels me, it kills me. It allows me to thrive, while simultaneously breaking me.