The memories I have of my grandmother are few but very specific.
Sitting down to breakfast, her pouring me coffee next to a plate of Eggo waffles, the comic strips pulled out of the newspaper just for me so I could read it with her and my grandfather at the table. Always treating me as if I were an adult too.
The guest room filled with toys for my brother and me, but specifically a shelf of books for me. Running downstairs to her, crying, because In A Dark, Dark Room was too scary. Her ripping out the pages from “The Green Ribbon” where the girl’s head falls off so it couldn’t frighten me anymore.
Rinsing sand out of my mouth at her kitchen sink. Washing the taste away with orange Kool-aid from the beige pitcher with the flower top.
The stereo in the living room where she wanted to play The Phantom of the Opera CD for me, but my brother started to cry and she had to cut the song short.
Countless trips to Barnes and Noble to pick out a new book. Because even at 8, she accepted me for exactly who I was. Recognized the little person who was beginning to form and really, truly knew her.
She passed away from cancer when I was in the 5th grade, just about a month after 9/11, so at the age of 10, the world was a pretty unrecognizable place. Even after all this time, I can’t stand the smell of too many flowers in one room, and thirty seconds of the wrong church song will make me lose it and turn into a blubbering mess.
I still have the Berenstain Bears stuffed animal I wanted so badly that she gave me for my pre-school graduation, and when I moved into an apartment by myself for the first time, I set Sister Bear on the top shelf of my closet, and my grandmother’s golf club in the corner, hoping that both would make me feel safer. That same year, I saw The Phantom of the Opera for my birthday. Something I had always meant to do to feel closer to her.
Soon I’m going to “O” by Cirque du Soleil, which I’ve been waiting close to 20 years to see because while Cirque du Soleil was always something special I saw with my grandfather, this was his favorite show. The one he’d always tell me about, the one that you could only see in Vegas, the one that he went to see with her. My grandmother.
And while I’m beyond excited because it’s been my dream since I was a little girl, there’s also a sense of sadness that comes with it, because the thing about realizing a dream is that while you gain an amazing experience, you still end up losing a dream.
I got my dream job right after college. After years of watching telenovelas, blasting reggaetón in a white minivan, and buying People en Español at Jewel, of eating, breathing and dreaming in Spanish, I got a full-time position at Telemundo.
It was the culmination of a long series of very structured educational milestones that started in grade school with words like “accelerated” and “gifted”, getting pulled out of my regular classes to build a Rube Goldberg machine or invent my own flavor of soda pop. Discovering, to my astonishment, that Narnia was really just a giant metaphor for Christianity. Learning what a metaphor was to begin with. Putting them into poems. Poems that would be laminated and bound into little books. To make the writing feel important.
As I got older it stayed the same but progressed. There was always something to learn. Some test to take. Some teacher to impress. Some praise to be earned. Advanced this. AP that. Always something to compete in. Something to win. Something to achieve. Something to challenge me.
All I had to do was show up.
College was a little different, giving me more freedom to choose what I wanted to learn. I went with Spanish because I was the proudest of it. The cockiest too. I bit off a little more than I could chew at times, learning I couldn’t read four novels and have a social life at the same time, but still managing all the same. I lived for finishing essays late into the night or getting a good note from my favorite professors, priding myself on learning to write what I thought they wanted to hear. I saved the most important ones in a cardboard box I took with me when I moved back home to start working.
I was so excited and thankful for this job. It was everything I wanted, and somehow I had gotten it, even after realizing that while reading and writing had always gotten me somewhere in school, it wasn’t necessarily resumé material that would equal a paycheck. Spanish wasn’t like engineering or accounting; it didn’t have a structured next step, but somehow I had managed to find one anyway.
What I hadn’t realized until then, was that that was it. I didn’t have a next step. I didn’t have a plan. I honestly never had one. I didn’t have to. I had just shown up.
There’s no such thing as a “gifted” or “advanced” day job. No one pulls you out of the office to write poems or hold Socratic seminars, and I missed it. I read essays on LinkedIn about this problem, how I belonged to a generation of Millennial unicorns who all thought we were special and deserved trophies just for participating, just for showing up.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job, I just really missed school. Those achievements, those challenges, that structured growth that had been my identity for sixteen years. I became jealous of friends who had continued on to grad school, law school, any kind of school, feeling inadequate every time someone posted a new picture in a cap and gown.
I moved on to a new job that paid enough to move out of my parents’ house and put all my focus on the relationship I was in, thinking money and love would fill the hole where my dreams had lived. Would make up for the identity I had lost, would show me who to be, how to be, finally, an adult.
I was entirely wrong. I was trying to distract myself instead of doing the real work I had to do, alone, the work adulthood requires. To create our own growth. To take responsibility for our own continued learning. To define achievement for ourselves and figure out, on our own, how to accomplish it. To always seek out that next step, even if it’s tiring. To keep looking for dreams, even though, like falling in love, they are few and far between.
But a dream you find after searching for it on your own, the one you find after you think you’ve run out, that kind of dream is a form of showing up that no one can ever criticize. Because it’s showing up for yourself.
I’m still a sucker for compliments, for any kind of praise, and way more competitive than I like to admit. At least about the things I care about. But I’ve found new outlets for my creativity and sought out structured ways to continue to grow and improve. I play adult make-believe in improv classes that remind me of those grade school classrooms, where anything goes, and everything is full of metaphors and satire. It makes me think, it challenges me. It makes me feel like I’m using everything underneath this thick skull of mine.
I still write, late into the night at times. But now I live for a good note from my editor and take pride in writing what I feel compelled to, instead of what anyone wants to hear. I still love writing about literature, but if I talk about Freud’s concept of the uncanny or Bentham’s panopticon, it’s because of my own genuine interest, and not for a grade.
I’ve learned to take pride in my own knowledge and accomplishments without receiving approval from anyone else. Without a cap and diploma. Because I’ve learned it’s not the milestones that matter. It’s the work. Having something to work for. Exertion. Effort. It’s how you go to bed at night feeling fulfilled and wake up with something to be excited about the next morning. It’s not accomplishing a dream that brings us the most happiness, it’s having one to begin with.
Even knowing how much all the work is worth it, I’m still reluctant to let go of certain dreams.
I remember reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. There’s one character who has come to mind more and more lately. A merchant who dreams of visiting Mecca, but refuses to go. My copy of the book is in Spanish, and he says “Tengo miedo de realizar mi sueño y después no tener ya motivos para continuar vivo” or, “I am afraid to realize my dream and afterward not have any reasons left to continue living.”
It’s dramatic, certainly. But I can relate with him on a certain level. I booked a trip to the UK for later this year, but haven’t done anything more than buy the plane tickets and do a few Google searches for places I want to visit. I had been talking about it for months, and finally pulled the plug because I needed something to look forward to, to focus on, to dream about because it made me feel good to think about it.
But I’ve also wanted to go to Europe since I was old enough to know what it was. Before my obsession with Spanish, I used to sit in front of my parents stereo system in our basement rewinding a cassette tape with French lessons on it. Sitting on the floor with the book that went with it, learning to pronounce Paris and Lyon, Toulouse and Marseille, dreaming of visiting them one day.
Over the years, the top countries on my list changed. From France, to Italy, to Spain, to Scotland and England. Something about castles and a big old house that belong in a BBC period piece have always appealed to me. And while my fear of never accomplishing this dream is what drove me to move forward, like the merchant, I’m also afraid to realize it.
I’m not afraid that I won’t have any reasons to continue living, or that the trip won’t live up to my expectations, but I am reluctant to lose that sense of childhood wonder. That the world won’t seem as big afterward. That everything I’ve built up in my imagination will be replaced by real memories. I’m afraid to give up a dream because these too have been a part of my identity for so long.
I have lived my entire life in my head. At two I made my parents call me Belle for an extended period of time and blew on every dandelion I could find. As soon as I could read, I preferred books to people, because they never said the wrong thing. Because no matter how voracious a reader I was, I would never run out of new ones to read. They were as close to an infinite source of pleasure as I could get.
Places are not. I know I love being a dreamer. Part of me is afraid of losing that if I become a doer.
Of all my dreams “O” is different. It’s kind of the last thing I have on my checklist of things my grandmother loved. Like I’ve finally run out of ways to be close to her. Like my list of memories will now be finite or complete.
And to be close to her isn’t to simply remember a series of moments, but the feelings that came with them. Feelings of being loved and cared for and really, truly understood. Knowing how important I was to someone else. That I mattered.
But like my other dreams, these lessons from my grandmother have their own special meaning when I experience them on my own:
Figuring out what it means to start the day out on the right foot. Coffee is still king, and I won’t turn up my nose to an Eggo waffle, but I’ve traded in the comics for music in the shower and a good book on the L.
Treating myself as an adult, holding myself to a higher standard. Believing that I am capable and independent and can handle things on my own.
Doing away with things that make me unhappy on my own. It’s not turning a blind eye to the things that are unpleasant or ugly in the world. It’s not denial. It’s realizing that there are already so many negative things that you have to acknowledge because they matter and not forcing the ones that don’t on yourself. Ripping out the pages that aren’t necessary. Keeping the ribbon securely around your neck so your head doesn’t roll. Knowing that it doesn’t have to.
Sand doesn’t belong in our mouths, and yet, even as adults, somehow it ends up there anyway. Sometimes that means swallowing our own words when we are wrong, or harsh truths from someone else we don’t necessarily want to hear. Knowing the power words hold whether we are on the giving or receiving end.
I have said the one thing I knew would hurt the most on more than one occasion and have searched for words that would soothe and comfort someone I cared about until I found them. I have strung together phrases that terrified me but ended up being the ones I meant the most.
Now I try my best to avoid the sand and aim to keep my words as transparent as water from the sink faucet. As honest and neutral. I save my sweetest words for the people who matter most, for special occasions, for the moments that are most important.
Because sugar is everywhere, and too much of it will make you fat, but the sweetest things in life are hard to come by. When handed out to anyone at any time, we see through the falseness, but we know it to be true when we receive them in the exact moments we need them most. It is the one thing that can wash away any bitterness we may carry inside. Its taste stays with us even after the source is no longer there.
I found out this year that The Phantom of Opera has a sequel called Love Never Dies. And while for the most part it’s relatively unknown and didn’t receive the best reviews and is a complete departure from the original story, knowing it exists brings me comfort as I embark on all of these seemingly huge next steps.
Almost eighteen years later, it still makes me very emotional to talk about my grandmother, and I know that that love is still very much alive, and I’m never going to lose it. Going to see this show in Vegas won’t change that.
And new accomplishments won’t erase my old ones either. Like that sequel, I’ve taken a departure from my Millennial unicorn roots, or at least I hope so. I’ve learned to do things for myself, and not just for recognition or praise. So what if not everyone liked the new story Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote? It was the one he wanted to tell. It was something new that didn’t take away from the original, because it couldn’t exist without it.
I’ve been afraid to grow up in so many ways because I’ve been reluctant to let go of who I’ve been, but now I see that becoming an adult doesn’t mean killing the child you once were. And no matter what comes next, what new dreams I find, what old ones I accomplish, I can only build upon what has been. I never have to lose it. That love, that structure, that support. It never really went away, it just taught me to stand on my own, to keep growing, and most importantly to really, truly know myself. To love her for exactly who she is. Someone that always has been, and always will be, a dreamer.