The Line Between Letting Go and Giving Up
It has been a year. The Letter arrived on a Friday, the week before Thanksgiving.
“…I am grateful for everything you have done and for the material support you have always given. I hope you can understand that right now what I need is some time and space apart from you…I know where to reach you and I wish you both the best always.”
It was signed with the name we had joyfully selected 25 years earlier, though I later learned that it had already been legally changed by then. She had already started with the testosterone; and already had an appointment to have her breasts cut off.
It is hard for me to remember what I did that weekend, how I spent the hours. What I do remember is the brain fog, the inability to discern my surroundings. When they were babies and we didn’t know what we were doing, we used to joke that kids don’t come with an instruction manual. It turns out that when they walk out of your lives, they also don’t leave a roadmap to help you find your way.
I also remember the physical constriction in my chest and my stomach, like something very heavy was relentlessly pressing on me. I remember the devastation of watching my husband stumble through that weekend, and of wondering: “what will this sadness do to us?”
In the early weeks, there were difficult conversations. People needed to be told, because I could not keep being asked “and how is your daughter doing? When will she be home for Christmas?” If I had to keep fielding those questions, I thought I would break.
Celebrating the holidays last year, I felt alien to my own life. I was completely destabilized and disoriented. And I kept asking, how am I supposed to get over this? What steps will stop this suffocating feeling? Without a doubt, I could not dwell in that state of despair, but I did not know how to make my way out of it. People told me “just let it go. She’s an adult.” How do you let go, though? And how would I distinguish between letting go and giving up on my child?
The answer kept coming back that it just takes time. It is like grieving any other loss—can’t wallow, can’t avoid it. You must walk through it.
So, I walked. I knew constant rumination was not a long-term strategy for my emotional wellness, but still I sometimes allowed myself to be overwhelmed by sadness, confusion, anger, and shame. I lived with a lump in my throat, brought to tears when I had to drive by her preschool; or when a piece of mail came for her, sometimes with the old name and sometimes with the new one. Or when I opened the closet and saw that box of things she asked us to hold onto when she left for college, with her stuffed alligator inside it. I wondered what she was doing, whether she ever thought about me, whether I would recognize my own child if I ever saw her again. I wrote letters that I will never send. I was completely out of focus.
And then I decided I had to turn the page. I did not choose this, but now I needed to choose what to do with it. Acknowledging that our family is irreversibly damaged, and that I am injured, I decided I need to re-assemble everything. Not so much in spite of the damage, but rather incorporating it into whatever I build next. Everything that has happened is true; nothing I do or pretend or wish for will alter where we find ourselves now.
First, I resolved to spend time each day—just little bits of time, 5, 10, then 15 minutes—actively not thinking about her. My counselor described it like a puppy who constantly wants attention. You put him in his crate and ignore him for a while; and then when you can, you take him out and engage with him. So, I would allow myself to sit with my feelings and engage them, but sometimes I briefly crated them.
I also committed to redefine myself. We are all the main characters of our own stories, and I needed to re-write mine, so I am not just the tragic protagonist. That is not who I want to be. Together, my husband and I committed to author a new book. Professionally we are both at something of an inflection point, both ready to think about new adventures. Many, many cups of coffee are being enjoyed as we contemplate what might be next. Instead of being consumed by thoughts of my daughter, I am now consumed by planning The Next Act. Still, there are sometimes tears, but I know this needs to be a forward-looking endeavor, or I will wither. It is a long process; I am letting go.
I try, and sometimes manage, to hold hope that maybe our child will find a way home. But I know that life only moves in one direction; even if that happens, we won’t go back and recover what has been lost. Even if she comes back, my child is not the same, and I too am changed. Whether we can ever re-constitute a relationship, and if so, what it might look like, are complete unknowns to me.
I worry that, in moving on, I am also moving toward indifference. I don’t know how to stop hurting but not stop caring. I don’t know if letting go means I will give up on any future that includes her, or if I am giving up on her altogether. How do you keep the door open for them, but not feel heartbroken every moment that they don’t walk through it? I am still figuring this all out.
My daughter once gave me a birthday card:
… Anyway, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you for your unwavering love and support these 20 years. You never went unappreciated (although I fear unthanked) I’m so grateful to have your compassion, strength & all-around badassery in my life.”
I keep the card on my bookshelf in my office, so I can remember. I hope that person is still in there, and I hope there is a relationship we can come back to. I suppose I haven’t given up yet.