Grief, Anxiety, Loneliness—and Growth
How an Airbnb adventure takes me back, and forward.
Posted Aug 10, 2018
This weekend I’m back in the college town where I grew up, staying at an Airbnb near the university, having very visceral memories of childhood, college, and the deep anxiety I continue to feel about new experiences. Last night, wakeful in the dark in the hot bedroom I have rented in a grad school apartment where two international students live, I found myself thinking, “I can’t do this. Tomorrow night I will spend the money for a real hotel room: air conditioning, total privacy, the sparkle and scent of chemical cleansers,” and I began to cry from the weight of being alone in a strange place.
And then I thought of the two other people in the apartment, the ones who have come halfway around the world to study at the university, who now have me in their space, yet another person who isn’t exactly like them, whose presence emphasizes their alienation, their distance from home, their longing for family and old friends, for familiar language and routine, and I felt ashamed of my own anxiety and sadness. I decide to see if I can make breakfast in the communal kitchen, shower in the clean-if-you-don’t look-too-close bathroom (which I have already sprayed in all the essential spots with a wonderful bottle of Spic-n-Span), and find the router so I’ll have Wifi and a connection with the outside world. I accomplish those things, and now know that tonight will be better than last night, simply because I have done it once before.
I’m here because my siblings and I, and many of our cousins, are gathering in our family’s home town to bury my mother’s ashes. It’s the weekend of my mother’s birthday—she would be 91 on Monday—and we all gathered exactly a year ago to celebrate her 90th with her. She died in February, and I thought I was grieving pretty well: feeling the feelings, remembering her with sweetness tinged with sadness, longing to hear her voice, tell her my adventures, even hear her complaints about health and help at the nursing home where she lived for a very long time.
In the past few weeks, however, as this weekend approached, the feelings refused to be managed quite so easily. I burst into tears three times yesterday: when a client gave me a beautiful “peace rock” she had painted in honor of my mother; when I bought a package of M&M’s to use for a batch of chocolate chip cookies to serve the cousins when they’re here; and when I read a psalm (114) and the Book of Common Prayer liturgy for burying the dead in preparation for the ritual I will lead graveside on Sunday. I know that grief makes its presence known without warning—a wave washes over us, and then ebbs again. I know from past experiences that I can’t avoid or resist grief, that it simply doesn’t work that way. Therefore, I try to embrace the tears, welcome the sadness, accept the anxiety of unresolved change in my world. All those things mean I’m continuing to love, miss, and want my mother.
I’m in this Airbnb, and thereby back in grad school again, in order to be alone sometimes in a situation that could be all-people, all-the-time. I need solitude when the feelings are intense: I need to be able to write, which allows me to pay attention to the feelings, and to have time to think about what the feelings mean.
I do wish I had spent the money to get a nicer place, but maybe this apartment is exactly what I need. It takes me back to so many times in that stretch when I was 18 to 25, when I felt utterly alone, on the brink of new stages of life. I was half-excited to be starting college, then embarking on graduate school, then beginning a new job and career. And completely terrified that I would never be comfortable again; never learn my way around, learn the ropes, learn to trust myself.
Each time it was hard; each time I got through it. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Make our way through changes that terrify and excite us. This Airbnb, I’ve decided, represents a bit of that process: my stay here is time-limited, it’s making me look back and forward; it’s teaching me a few things, including cultivating some empathy for people who potentially are more alone, more alienated, than I’ve ever been in my life. The Airbnb gives me privacy and a situation to make meaning out of loss. It’s a small adventure.
The idea of being on an adventure makes me think again of my mother, who was not drawn to adventure. I always felt that she admired my inclination to travel (literally and figuratively), that she saw it as courage, and that she had some vicarious experience through me. She regretted not having done some particular things in her life, and throughout my life I got the unspoken message that I must not allow that to happen to me.
I don’t think missing the opportunity to spend a weekend in a student apartment when she was 55 would have been a regret for her, but she would have seen the symbolism. She taught me to look for meaning in life, and that’s the gift I grieve the most when I think of my mother. I’d like to be able to tell her that she gave it to me. I hope that somehow she knows that, as well as all the other things that I am grateful for about my mother.