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Echoes from my self-absorbed past

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A few weeks ago, I unearthed an envelope containing unsent letters I’d written at the age of 20, shortly after I arrived in Canada. My South African suntan was still fading in the weeks after my family and I arrived in Swift Current, Sask., and my initial excitement at moving quickly faded into disillusionment. My new home was an insular, Christian prairie town, a far cry from the bustling, beautiful city of Cape Town I’d left behind. It didn’t resemble the Canada I’d imagined in any way.

So I sat on my bed that first frigid winter and wrote long, mournful essays about how destitute, depressed and sad I was feeling. No one understood my emotional turmoil, I wrote. It was a bottomless pit of hopelessness and heartbreak and I wondered how I’d ever manage to forge a path into the future.

Looking back on that self-absorbed young woman, I wish I could shake her by the shoulders and lecture her on everything she had to be grateful for, instead of engaging in a lengthy, selfish process of navel gazing. My younger self had no idea how quickly things could change.

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As I penned these essays, it never occurred to me that my parents were feeling the same way I was. But instead of sitting in bed crying, my mother was downstairs trying her utmost to maintain a cheerful disposition for the sake of her family. She was equipping a new kitchen, cooking and shopping for family meals, doing laundry and baking challah from scratch, because Jewish life in Swift Current was non-existent and the nearest kosher bakery was eight hours away. Dad was heading off to work each morning at the local hospital, so we could start this new life he’d embarked on at the age of 52. They’d both sacrificed so much to make this move possible for their three kids. Mom had reluctantly left a thriving psychology practice to move to the prairies, while my dad had left his ailing mother in an institution, where she’d call his name repeatedly for the next three years before dying.

If I could step back in time, I’d tell that 20-year-old how bright the future would be if she could just be patient and a little optimistic. I’d warn her that our mother would have only 10 short years before we’d have to bury her, and that Alzheimer’s would rob our dad of his golden years. I’d command her: “Enjoy your parents and your family now, instead of sitting self-indulgently in your bedroom, ruminating about what you left behind. Get busy living and appreciate the beauty and love that surrounds you.”

Alas, there’s no going back and hindsight is all I have. It’s taken 25 years and considerable gains and losses for me to develop the depth of perception I have today. At 20, it was all about me, one long wallow in the trough of self-pity. As I re-read my letters, I got impatient with the young, selfish person who wrote them – a person who thought she knew everything about pain and heartbreak, but who had barely scratched the surface of those subjects. Embarrassed at her ignorance, I tossed them in the recycling and tried to forget. In my mind’s eye, though, I can still picture her crying in the bedroom while the rest of the  family were showing courage, pragmatism and strength in those trying first months in Canada. 

Do we become wiser as the years pass? I pray the answer is yes, because a quarter-century from now, if I’m lucky enough to live that long, I’d like to look back on my 45-year-old self with pride, instead of embarrassment. At 70, I want to reflect on a 45-year-old woman who was unselfish, pragmatic and hardworking – a person who was anything but a narcissistic navel-gazer. 

I’d like to say I’ve come a long way in the quarter-century since I penned those letters, but who am I to judge? The South African expression, “a fox praises his own tail,” comes to mind. Self-praise is quite useless and, sadly, the only two people who could comment fully on my self-growth are no longer able to do so.