It was one of those moments that makes a parent crazy — a perfect late summer day in the woods with my five-year-old, sun shining, temperature hovering just under 70 degrees; I was congratulating myself that I could get paid to hike in the woods with my kid courtesy of an assignment from a travel magazine, and then my daughter whined, “Mommy, this is the worst day of my life.”
I’d heard this before, mind you. The complaint frequently follows my failure to provide ice cream on demand or to buy sparkly colored nail polish at the pharmacy.
“How can this be the worst day of your life?” I asked Heidi in frustration, discovering I was not so much holding her hand as we walked but dragging her up the trail to what is arguably one of the finer views in Shenandoah National Park at the summit of Stony Man.
“I don’t like walking,” she said. “I want to go back to the lodge and watch TV.”
Before you judge me and assume I’ve raised a completely worthless child, understand that television is a rare treat in this little girl’s world. I admit to being a cruel parent who is completely ignorant in the arena of popular culture — we have no satellite or cable TV at our house. (Is there still such a thing as cable TV?) I would be completely clueless in water cooler conversation if I had to work in a real office.
I couldn’t help myself. I felt a completely pointless lecture coming on. “Heidi, you have not even begun to experience the worst day of your life,” I snapped at her. “Trust me, that day has yet to come.”
I’ve learned a lot about worst days the past few years, so much so that I have had the far too frequent experience of thinking to myself, Well at least THIS has got to be the worst day I will ever experience. It simply CANNOT get any worse and be humanly survivable.
News flash, writer chick: It can get worse, and it usually does.
I had the worst day of my life (to date anyway) about four years ago. It was such a bad day that it exceeded the badness of experiencing new parenthood alone while suffering from postpartum depression and trying to run a business and keep up a farm at the same time. It also exceeded in badness the “it almost killed me” experience of having a doctor prescribe a medication that sent me into round-the-clock wakefulness and 24/7 anxiety attacks for a month…again while trying to run a business and a farm with a less than interested spouse. Once I had gotten clear of those two things, I was convinced I was good to go — at least when it came to psychological disasters.
Nope. Never assume you’ve seen the worst.
The worst day came on the heels of a good stretch of pure bliss when all was right with the world — happy, healthy daughter, solid and thriving business, a life rich with wonderful friends, a sparkling sense of freedom and hope post-divorce, and a deep and trusting relationship with a new partner.
I was enjoying a lazy afternoon with a man who has held my hand through some serious tribulation and filled my life with incredible joy…I’m talking the nirvana joy that comes of feeling fully known and safe with another human being. And out of the blue, he strikes me down, tells me he can’t be with me anymore. In an instant, the blissful present is shattered and thrown into the past. And before I know it, I am watching him drive away and crying in a heap of hopeless, wanting to die pain on the top of a lonely hill with a mountain view lovers would die for.
It takes weeks for my friends to pull me out of the “I don’t want to get out of bed ever again” funk, weeks of hanging onto life by sleeping next to my little girl so I will remember why I need to live even though my life seems to be teaching me that love is a vain, fragile, and effervescent thing that slips between your fingers like spider webs, leaving only a sticky remembrance that maybe something beautiful and gossamer was once there, but you’re just not sure….
Hopelessness sets in hard.
Because after two decades of trying, you just get tired. And you start wondering how so many others before you and like you have made it through this thing called life.
But after a while, the fog of despair lifts a little. You’ll find you can get through 15 minutes without thinking about what you have lost instead of only 15 seconds.
And on some days the fog lifts a lot. Like that day in the woods with my daughter, who does not yet know what “a worst day” looks like. I weep a little inside thinking of the pain that awaits her down the road when I will not be there to hold her hand and drag her up the mountain to the view I know is there.
When we reached the summit of Stony Man, Heidi was enthralled. “I can see the whole world,” she exclaimed, scrambling up onto the rocks. “This is the best day ever!”
And I cannot help but wonder at the resiliency of children and marvel how it is, as adults, we lose it.
So there on the mountain, as my daughter admired the mountain ridges undulating westward and chatted with hikers from Paris who had joined us at the summit, I started thinking not about my worst day…but about my best day.
It was a day about five years ago when I was in the Galapagos Islands. (And if you’re not familiar with the Galapagos, they are the otherworldly islands about 600 miles off the coast of South America where Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution.)
In a single day, I had come within touching distance of blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies as well as watched albatrosses in courtship only a few feet from my nose. I had knelt on a beach covered with hundreds of sea lions so fearless of humans that their babies came up to me, their whiskers grazing my knee caps. In the afternoon I had snorkeled in a protected cove and experienced the exhilarating rush of being surrounded by sea lions in the wild, darting all around me, playful and curious, investigating me and my video camera, scaring and thrilling me all at once as I laughed and squealed at the same time.
I remember rising up out of the water finally, pulling myself into the waiting skiff, and telling the Ecuadorian naturalist who waited there, “This is the best day of my life.”
And I meant it.
And what was particularly thrilling about that best day, as I sat contemplating it on Stony Man, is that I had it without the help of another human being on earth. I had experienced it all myself. It was not my wedding day. It was not the day my daughter was born. It was not the day I reunited my father with his biological family. It was not the day I fell in love.
Someone else may have caused my worst day, but no one but me caused my best.
That is when you know you have real joy — when you can grasp it, feel it, pull it to you whether you are with the love of your life or completely alone. It is a difficult joy to attain. You have to be vigilant, you have to be willing to live hard in the present, you have to be willing to let go of depending on others to give you peace, love, and acceptance.
When it was time to leave the summit of Stony Man, Heidi resisted hard. “I don’t want to leave the beautiful view,” she said.
“I know. None of us ever do,” I replied. “But sometimes you have to leave the view to appreciate it,” I added.
Still five, still flippant, still willful, she scoffed as we hiked down the mountain, “This is the worst day of my life!”
“Why?” I asked, bemused.
“Because I had to leave the beautiful mountaintop,” she said.
If only we could always live life on the pinnacle.
But we cannot. Sometimes we have to come down off the mountain in order to admire the full glory of joy.
Deborah Huso is an award-winning journalist and founder of Write Well Media, a strategic communications firm specializing in complex, niche markets. Read more from Deborah at “I Only Love You Because I Have To: The Fearless Woman’s Guide to Love, Life, and Making Things Happen.”