When I was nine-years-old, my mom dropped my two brothers and a small backpack crammed with clothes off at my dad’s house. As my brothers walked inside, I proclaimed that I wasn’t leaving the car. After five minutes of crying, arguing and finally compromising, I decided that I’d go inside if my mom came first thing in the morning. She kissed my head and promised to be back before I woke up. After a week of no contact, it was evident that my mom wasn’t returning.
My peripheral world was puzzled by her actions. I can remember the “she was such a good mom” whispers of my guidance counselor. By the end of that year, everything in my life had changed. I was now living with my dad, who, to that point, had remained absent from my life. Other than during the moment before my mother left, no one ever saw me shed a tear. Upon recognizing that our lives were about to take a 180-degree turn, my dad encouraged us to maintain as much normalcy as possible. He prompted us to remain grateful to God that we had ended up together. In retrospect, my dad probably did the best thing he could have done for us at that time. We were always encouraged to focus on constructing the most out of the situation at hand. Resultantly, we acclimated quickly to the new life we were now living. Looking back, I’m astonished that, while it seemed everything in our lives was changing, nothing had changed whatsoever.
During my senior year of high school, I started to revisit the memory I had of my mother. Before moving on to a new chapter of my life, I wanted to understand the most ubiquitous and unfinished part of my childhood. It soon became obvious that what I needed was to grieve my mom.
By the time I accepted that I had emotions that needed to be grieved, I had already arrived on Duke’s campus. Although the typical signs of grief were there, I didn’t know anyone well enough—and no one knew me well enough—to discharge some of the emotions I was hesitantly feeling. Luckily, at the beginning of my Spring semester, my participation in Kathy Rudy’s Baldwin Scholars freshman seminar validated the importance of grief. My interaction with other Baldwin’s allowed me the ability to logically and emotionally make sense of what I was still feeling after nine years of ambiguous absence. With every step along the way, it became clear that letting go of my mother was the only way I would be able to live my life—a life in which I believed myself to be more than the daughter who wasn’t good enough to be loved by her mother.
This summer brought clarity, and I was able to make sense of some of the things in my life after having grieved over the memory of my mother. Most notably, I let go of the promise I had once made her that I would become a doctor. I convinced myself that an insult from someone else was unfair, and I walked away from a toxic friendship. This summer, I let myself give up on a task when it became too much to handle. In the past, I would have unconsciously internalized any negative treatment as an accreditation of my faults; I would have refused to fail, because I once thought that doing so would affirm that I was, indeed, unworthy.
Last week, I received notice of speculation that my mother may have passed. As I heard this news, I was shockingly unaffected by the loss of the very woman who is often recognized as the most important person in peoples’ lives, and I understand why: I had already grieved over my mother. I had already let go of the pressures she had imposed upon my life.
Duke has taught me time and time again that we all carry baggage. We all ache of pains we choose not to understand, we all wear scars we choose to perfectly conceal and we all battle wars we don’t even realize we’re battling. And while there is value in leaving the past behind, it’s important that the past be dealt with in order for it to be understood. It’s imperative to acknowledge that strength is more than just dealing with those day-to-day lows.
Most importantly, it’s important to acknowledge pain as an opportunity for growth.
Nourhan Elsayed is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.