Look up at the stars
It’s been a long time, but remember who you are
Circle of life, but one day, I might not make it
Circle of life, but one day, I might not make it
But you just got to find your way back“Find Your Way Back” by Beyoncé
Big, big world, but you got it, baby…
We don’t get to choose when success happens for us. We can prepare for it, put effort into it, but there is always a penultimate moment where things are completely out of our hands. We finished that interview, gave that presentation, had that crucial conversation and while the ball is still perhaps “in our court,” it has been lobbed into the air and is approaching the net. This much is true, but one of the hardest lessons of late has been that you also don’t get to choose who will be there with you.
I often flash back to spring of 2016. I had accepted an offer to teach at the “dream school” I had been raving to my family about. My cousin and his wife had just given birth to the first baby in our family in almost 30 years. My Nana was fighting a cold, but she got to meet 3 week-old baby Kaylani in person for the first time. Light and hope surged like electricity through our family’s wiring and everything was right in the world.
And just like that, within days of both events, Nana took her last breath.
I used to think Nana was over-the-top. Well, in many ways she was…she adored clothing with loud prints and vibrant colors. She could never enter a room that had a dance floor without blessing it with her sweat. You could pick out her laugh in a crowd the size of Coachella. She wore more rings than she had fingers for. She was immediately bigger than any space she occupied.
Nana used to always talk about me to friends and strangers alike as if I was this prodigy. She spoke with this regality that propounded their fortune for having updates on my life bequeathed unto them.
“My granddaughter runs Track & Field at the Reggie Lewis Center, you know. She’s very fast, she could be in the Olympics.”
“She’s starring in a play at her high school. She’s a natural on stage. She’ll win an Oscar.”
“She writes poetry. You should hear her read it. She’ll publish books one day.”
I was mortified by all these people being told about me. I was just a teenager trying to figure herself out in many ways. But truth be told, it was endearing.
Nana died before I ever stepped-foot in my classroom at that dream school. She had been gone a whole year by the time my twins were born. A year before I became a homeowner, making my cousins and I the first complete generation of homeowners in our family. It hurts sometimes to know that she will never dance with her great-grandkids in gardens owned by her grandchildren.
It’s been four years since she passed, and to this day I get the urge to call her and share my successes. And now I consider, maybe she wasn’t really being extra way back then at all. She was by no means Biggie Smalls “Ready to Die,” but perhaps the new baby and the new job were enough assurance for her. I wonder now, if she celebrated my adolescent successes because she knew that one day I’d have adult-sized successes and she wouldn’t be there.
Adult successes are the ones that we are socialized to regard as “what really matters.” The ones with the prospects that make us all too often tame our tongues when a child or teenager does something child- or teenager-sized. We tell ourselves we do this because it might give the child an inflated sense of self. We sell ourselves a warped fantasy where we are suddenly raising Napoleon Bonaparte and he is glaring at us to coordinate a parade because he returned all of his toys to the toy chest.
I’m not suggesting we give out medals for washing the dishes. But, I do wonder how many times we dismiss opportunities to celebrate success with our kids because we are, in part, denying our own mortality. In what ways might we be clinging to this assumption that we will be there for the “grownup milestones” of career, relationship, and family? In what ways might we be conditioning our children to regard those events as measures of their worth? And what unintended messages do we send about the path to success? Of failure? Of swerving off-road and paving a completely unforeseen path of their own?
We can do our best to lead healthy lifestyles, taking care of ourselves as best as we know how. But ultimately, we don’t decide when death occurs to us or to those around us. For those of us who are parents, we have no control over what our children’s successes look like. We can’t kale-and-egg-white our way to their adult successes. And long after we’re gone, our kids will get that same urge to phone us to tell us the good news, but won’t be able to.
What we do have control over is seeing success in our children and letting them know what we see. I maybe wanted to go to the Olympics at one point, and I pondered a career in acting, but I grew to realize that running and theatre served different purposes in my life and I didn’t need a gold medal or Oscar to enjoy fruit from those trees. But guess what? I am a writer. I have published a book and am working to publish more. The greatest peace I have is knowing that my grandmother celebrated all of those successes decades ago and never hesitated to express her deep belief that I have the power to take any success in my life as far as I wish to go.