Last year, I read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, and it immediately displaced any other book as my favorite. If I could give it my top five favorite spots, I would. When I read WILD for the first time, the first chapter grabbed me right in the heart. I cried for a long time. I put down the book for weeks. I picked it up and read more, and cried again. This happened the second time I read it, and the third. It’s still hard for me to think at length about this book without tearing up.
On one level, I connected with young Cheryl as she breaks from her life and starts what seems less like a new chapter than a new book entirely. After I graduated both college and a terrible depression, I quit my job, moved to New York, and decided I needed to stand on my own and chase my dreams. And I have. It’s worked out really well for me, on the whole, which I know isn’t always the case. I know how lucky I am, and when Cheryl succeeded, she wrote about it in a way that I identified with.
But for every time that I felt close to the story for our similarities, I felt my heart cleaved in two when reading about Cheryl’s losses and failures. In college, an on-and-off serious relationship nearly destroyed me wholly, in ways that are so similar and so different from hers. I’ve also struggled with my relationship with my family, primarily my mother, for the last decade, to the point where only in the last year or two have we really been able to start healing our relationship and have the closer bond we both want.
My mom and I don’t usually talk about how things make us feel in relation to each other. We talk a lot about food. We send each other pictures and recipes over text and Facebook. We talk about books sometimes, since she wants to get back into reading and I can give her strong recommendations. We talk about what we’ve been up to lately, when we do talk on the phone about once every week or so. Usually we call when there’s been something momentous to discuss, but otherwise we don’t have much that fills the blank of “What else?”, the unspoken family motto. It goes without saying (though we do) that we love each other, but we talk about how we do what we’re doing, rather than how we feel about what we’re doing. We just don’t talk about feelings that much.
It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, intensely. But we love each other in a different way than my boyfriend’s family does, and from your family does, and anyone else’s, probably. It would likely be appropriate to quote Tolstoy here, but I wouldn’t say that my family is unhappy. I would say that there have been events in everyone’s lives that have drained intense emotion from us, drawn it out in such a way that we no longer have the strength to bring it to the surface with regularity. We are happy, but that happiness is tempered by the unhappiness we’ve wrought on each other and that’s been wrought on us. No one is really to blame. That’s just how it is.
It’s not bad. It’s just different. It’s just how we are. I used to think I wanted to talk to my family every day and share all of our emotions, but as I’ve gotten older and thought on end about the relationships in my extended family, I don’t think that’s in the cards for us. And I’m okay with that now, for some reasons, but many of them are that that’s not how my family shows its love. We do talk and show our live by sharing things we know our family members will like. We’ve always been big on gift holidays because that’s how we express things. Mere words tend to lose meaning with us, given our history with empty conversation, and so we like to back them up when we can.
Something I’ve learned in the past year is that my mom and I have a growing bond over cooking and recipe sharing. Since I started living alone, like an adult, I’ve started taking a strong interest in learning how to really cook, and not just from basic recipes. I always took it for granted that my mom was good at cooking, but now I know that it’s one of her great loves. More and more, it’s one of mine, too—and I’ve learned that I’m good at it. When I visited over Christmas last year, we cooked together almost every day, learning from each other and spending time reading cookbooks and recipes together. These are the bonds I make with my mother, and they mean more to me than almost anything. I think she knows that.
But it matters when I read WILD and can’t get through the mom chapters without having a thorough cry. When I first read this book, I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on this relationship in my own life, especially considering how fraught with tension it’s been over the last decade of our lives. Maybe I don’t have what some people would now consider an ideal relationship with my parents, but it works for us. Over the last ten years, we’ve all learned a lot about what depression means and how it can affect a family dynamic in almost every way. It hasn’t been easy on anyone, and that compounded on extended family issues has been even harder.
My mom’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease. I remember going to see my grandmother, my mom’s mom, in a nursing home, and watching my mom be vulnerable in a way that doesn’t happen very often, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. I remember my grandmother, my Nana, when she was in full control of her faculties and making me elaborate birthday cakes when we’d visit my mom’s small hometown, and as I grow older, thinking about how the slow, sad change must have affected my mom and her sisters affects me, as I translate it to my own possible future. I can more accurately imagine the reality of the future, and it scares me. The older I get, the more afraid I am that this could—and likely will—happen to me, and I’m afraid of wasting opportunities. It’s especially hard since I live 1500 miles from home right now, but we do what we can.
I think sometimes about what my life will be like when my parents die. It’s very upsetting and I don’t like to think about it, but I do. I wonder how I will feel, how my relationship between my brother and I will be different, and what it will mean for my life. I also know that nothing can prepare me for how I will feel, but now that I’m older, I feel like I have a better handle on things than I used to. Or, at least, I can understand what the reality is, especially regarding mental illness.
When I read WILD, it feels like I’m preparing myself a little better for the eventuality. I sometimes don’t think we talk about grief enough, especially in regard to parental death, and it’s something that my generation is starting to face as a matter of eventual course rather than by horrible, untimely accident. And that scares me. It scares me that there’s little I can really do to fend off my fears. I wonder if I’ll dissolve into nothingness again, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if I’ll need to make a major life change, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if my life will ever be the same again, and I know that it won’t.
No, I’m not consumed by these fears, but as someone who’s always needed to prepare for major changes, sometimes it scares me that this isn’t something you can ever really be fully prepared for. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have already had to face this, whose lives were altered too soon. We can never be ready, really.
Cheryl Strayed is known for her raw voice, one that holds you together while you work through every day tragedies. Nothing that’s happened to her is so crazy that it hasn’t happened to anyone else, but what’s different about her writing is that she wants you to experience your grief. She wants you to know that it’s okay to have a wide range of feelings about things that happen to you. Her long-running (now defunct) advice column for The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, is one that will change your life if you let it.
There’s no real way to end this except to say that my former book club didn’t fall in love with this book the way I did, and for a book that affected me as strongly as this one, I can’t understand why. Cheryl’s return from the brink brought up feelings I thought long buried and inspired new thoughts, even new fears. At its simplest, it could be called a quarter-life crisis, I guess. But really, for me, it was about understanding what it means to be catapulted into adulthood in the way that we all are.