Friday, March 1, 2013

The Day That Changed My Life Forever: The Ceiling Came Crashing Down

I entered an essay contest and did not win, but I am now free to share my submission however I'd like, so here it is. The prompt asked to write about a day that you knew your life was forever changed. Mine happened when my ceiling fell down.


The door swung open wide and the sight was unavoidable. My entire kitchen ceiling was in shambles on the floor along with the bits of plaster and who-knows-how-old rotting wood that had been above the dropped ceiling. I could see pieces of wall with other people’s chosen wallpaper: patches of brick red patterns, a pair of roosters on a cream background that seemed comically out of place among the debris. The history of my house and the whispers of people who’d lived there before were laid out on the floor, and I did not have it in me to deal with it. I turned to my husband, who was still standing in the doorway behind me. “Let’s go out for dinner tonight.” 

The actual aftermath, not a reenactment.

Normally, my reaction would have been, well, let’s just say a little more dramatic. This house—that we had bought less than a year before—was beginning to wear me down. It seemed like there was a never-ending string of repairs that were costing all our money and all our time. Home ownership was not the dream it had sounded like it would be, and it was throwing a curve into my smooth trajectory to success.

My husband and I are both the first in our families to go to college. We were in uncharted territory when it came to how to put our lives together, so I was dedicated to following the “right” path. We got our undergraduate degrees together (falling in love in dorm rooms across the hall from one another), moved to go to graduate school (me) and law school (him), and got married. When I finished my Master’s, I got a job and we bought a house. Everything seemed to be humming right along like some “Ten Steps to Transforming Your Life” seminar. He was about to graduate from law school and I was slowly progressing toward a PhD while I worked fulltime. I was checking off boxes on invisible to-do lists left and right.

None of those successes were going through my mind as we ate dinner that night, though. All I could think about was the mess on my kitchen floor and the amount of work and money it was going to take to put it back together. Would I be able to cook the next day? We couldn’t afford to eat out every night. How much was this going to cost? How long would it take? Midterms were coming up. I didn’t have time to deal with this.

There was one thought, though, that I kept pushing to the back of my mind as my husband and I discussed what we were going to do about the ceiling. As we paid our check, I looked out the window and saw a pharmacy. “Can we stop there?” I asked him. “I need to pick up a pregnancy test.”

I am not a patient person, and I had to make myself leave the room while I waited for the results to show up on that little stick. As I waited, I was trying to figure out what the best outcome would be. We’d decided to start trying for our first baby just two months before. I reasoned with myself. If the results are negative, maybe it’s better to wait until we get this house situation figured out. Wait until my husband’s out of school. Wait until I have a higher paying job. Wait until I finish my PhD. Wait until all of the boxes are checked off the list. The ceiling collapsing had made my smooth ride to success look like an avalanche of uncertainty.

I went back in the bathroom. Directly below me, my husband was busy in the kitchen scooping pieces of plaster off the floor. I called him upstairs to look at the stick I couldn’t stop staring at. I was pregnant.

Over the next few years, my life would change forever several times: the first time I felt my baby kick inside me, the day I gave birth to her, the first time she spoke. I would also mark a lot of boxes off my invisible list. My husband graduated and started his career. I took a new job in a faculty position. I kept making progress toward my doctorate.

Since then, I can’t say that I’ve always held the stress at bay. There are times that I feel self-imposed deadlines passing me by and weighing me down. Should we have sold this house by now? Shouldn’t I know how to bake a pie from scratch? Why is it taking me so long to get this degree? I brush them off. I remind myself that my life is not a handbook; it’s my life. It’s messy, and it’s not perfect, but it’s mine. Some days I do more than I had hoped, and some days I do less. I try every day to make sure that I’m impacting the world and those around me positively, and—as long as I’ve done that—I go to sleep knowing I’ve done enough.

Most of all, I’ve learned that life is not a paved interstate with clearly marked weigh stations. I do not have to speed to each checkpoint to make it to my destination. I can wander down dusty roads and hike up mountains. I can even fall down. It can all come screeching to a halt around me, and that does not mean that it is over. I am more than an invisible list of dids and did-nots.

I can do all of those things because of the day the ceiling came crashing down. On that day, I learned that I had to let some of it go. I had been operating under such a tightly coiled definition of “success” that I forgot to notice when I reached any. All I could see was the next goal post, the next deadline, the next checkbox. As I called my husband up the stairs to look at those tiny pink lines, I stopped worrying about whether the time was right to have a baby. I knew then that the time would never be right by the rigid definitions I had been using and that it would never be more right than it was in that moment, our love and excitement filling a bathroom while our house fell apart below us.

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