This is the last story that appears in my book, Knowing Pains: Women on Love, Sex and Work in Our 40s. It's been six years since I first conceived of the idea for the book, and four years since we we appeared on the TODAY Show. Life is still full, though it's no longer frantic. I like it this way, though I do sometimes wake in the middle of the night wondering if I'm doing enough, accomplishing enough, learning enough or giving enough. Then I think of Jennifer Lear, our author of this week's Knowing Pains story, who understood this feeling and chose "good enough" over "never enough" in her life. When I first read this story I knew immediately it was the right note to end on. So that is what I will do here. Enjoy! - Molly Rosen
The underwater handstand contest nearly did me in. Until that moment, when I willed my lungs to push a few seconds beyond comfort, water had always soothed me by stilling my breath, my thoughts, my sense of time. Chalk it up to being born under an Aquarius astrological sign or to spending childhood summers with a chlorine-faded, Stars ‘n Stripes Speedo as my uniform, but floating has always been my preferred method of self-medicating. In fact, if my Ob/Gyn had offered underwater births, I would have dived right in.
But while trying to outlast my daughters’ handstands in the hotel pool a few months after turning 40, I found myself in the grip of a terror I had never before experienced in the water. Instead of floating in a soothing and meditative state of suspension, I felt seized. Totally stopped. My heart nearly stopped, my breathing nearly stopped, my control nearly stopped – everything stopped while I was held prisoner within the crushing walls of water closing in on me, suffocating thoughts tearing through my mind. I tried to push those thoughts away and restore my sense of serenity, but nothing I did could calm me.
Days before, I learned that my college friend, Kate, had drowned in her home after a torrent of rainwater broke through the foundation, trapping her inside a basement recording studio. The news unhinged me. It was too random, too insane, too violent to be real. I could wrap my brain around heart attacks, cancer, car accidents . . . but this, so stunning and incomprehensible; it was the stuff of nightmares, not reality. Holding my breath as I balanced upside down in the water that had always buoyed and restored me, I found it impossible to wash away the image of Kate’s last moments.
Kate with the lithe limbs and the fly-girl dance moves. Kate, whose uninhibited cartoon laugh rivaled Betty Rubble’s, but whose silky, sultry voice evoked Lauren Bacall. Kate the storyteller who could have the entire room under her spell whether narrating “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” or musing about her day. Kate, who at 20 was more settled in her unique skin than most of us are decades later. Perhaps because she seemed to have had this head start, she crammed a lot into the decades between 20 and 40 – becoming the Meryl Streep of the audio-book world, using her distinctive voice to bring characters alive in award-winning recordings. Kate’s stunning accomplishments and her premature death left me wondering, “Am I living big enough?”
As I reflected on how I’d spent the last 20 years, it seemed my life was an odd mix of impossible self-demands tempered with worry that each success increased the odds of a commensurate and compensating catastrophe. Rather than contenting in my blessings or good luck (and perhaps, in part, because I felt so blessed), I kept myself up at night dreading the illnesses, deaths, or other ordeals that would inevitably strike to even the score.