It’s always been difficult for me to distinguish between grief, exhaustion and depression. They all have the same creeping, phantomlike, hunted-and-haunted feeling. Like something is always behind you or following you. Or like when you walk into a spider web, and then for the rest of the day you feel like there is some wispy, string of nothing attacking your face.
I woke up this morning curious as to how the mescal from Saturday night’s outing had stretched this hangover into Monday’s whirlpool in my belly and the slight swimming in my head. I’m pretty sure it’s not depression. I know it is grief, though the mourning has been a slow build for God knows how long. And, pathetically, I’m grieving two different kinds of death: ones of those who lost their lives and another whose life is lost to me. And then there’s the exhaustion: this faceless fatigue turning every movement into a slow and deliberate motion.
When I was a toddler, soon before I left my small village in Nigeria for a small town in Oklahoma, my grandmother and I would trek to the stream at the edge of our village. She would carry a huge basin large enough to provide water for cooking and bathing for the day; I would have a smaller bucket.
At the stream, she allowed me to crouch on tiny knees and scoop water into my bucket. She allowed me to believe that I was helping. When her basin was full, she would help me balance the bucket on my head and walk back to the compound.
Her full basin would not spill a drop. Meanwhile, my small bucket would be empty and me drenched before we ever reached home. This happened every single time I followed her and my auntie to the stream.
When we returned to her house, the gurgling of her basin emptying into the compound’s water supply sounded like an ocean compared to the soft bubbles of the stream. I could only contribute a few lonely drops. There were more tears in my eyes than I had contributed to the compound’s water supply.
I remember my grandmother would wipe my eyes and place the empty bucket back on my head. She would help me relax my shoulders and straighten my neck and steady my head. I was a small child with bandy legs; she didn’t care if I contributed to the community water supply.
I was leaving soon for America, where there would be no stream, no bucket, no her. She would show me how to walk with a fixed destination in my sight. She would teach me how to relax, to strengthen; to stare into the distance and walk like I was headed into the future.
I have walked through the world with that lesson: Relax your shoulders, straighten your neck, steady your head and walk into the distance you see.
I think about this often when the tensions of the world begin to pull my shoulders up and forward; I can’t think straight, let alone keep my back or neck straight and long enough to see into the future. I think about it often when all I have to offer are frustrated tears; nothing useful to add to the basin my community needs.
My therapist and I often speak about the many ways we can self-harm. How it isn’t always razor-sharp cuts to the wrists and arms. That sometimes, the bloodletting is knowing that a thing will hurt us and doing it anyway.
The part of me that remembers the broken brain knows that I should step away, but where do you go when the air is thick? And your lungs are this full? And your spirit feels like it’s dragging a 3-ton something every step you take? Where do you go when even sleep offers no comfort?
I’m thinking about this now as I read about how my friends worry about their lives every second of every day, the stories of people, who, like me, came to this country when they were children and are now being threatened with deportation and their carefully crafted realities being demolished. I’m thinking of the people I love who love people they need to worry about every second of every day.
My grandmother refused to visit America, so I saw her only twice before she died a few years ago. The few times I saw her, I had lost the Yakkur language we shared, and she was never comfortable with the clipped and clattered English that I had become. The last time I saw her, I was 17 and had just finished high school. She never learned to read or write, so once again, she taught me what she knew—how to find balance.
I realized that the lesson as a child was never about carrying water or contributing to the household; it was about learning to navigate tears and still find the purpose and possibility in my day. My grandmother taught me how to survive in a world she never knew existed. And that lesson has stayed with me: Keep the back straight, shoulders relaxed, head steady and strong, neck long, eyes ahead and walking into a future that is not guaranteed.
This is how to carry a load.