99 Problems

Published on November 7th, 2013 | by Sarah Pape


Sarah Pape / EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL / Teen Daughters, Pot, Boys + Loss

She comes home from an exhausting day of hauling her world in the enormous backpack on her shoulders, hair unbundled and askew, exhausted from the gravity of so much abhorrent static. I tell her, You’re going to have a great life. None of this will matter. This, I’m starting to see, is the consolation one generation gives to the next.

But our generations overlap. When she was born, I gave the part of myself that might’ve travelled in Serbia or gone to Evergreen over to the study of her small orbit; kept our cockroach infested apartment tidy; called the bank everyday to talk my way out of another overdraft fee. I was terrified to fuck this up. When you are eighteen and pregnant, everyone is expecting you to do it wrong. All at once, everyone and no one are watching.

There are things I don’t remember about Sylvia’s early years. She doesn’t recall some things, either. Ultimately, I hope that between our two memories I will someday think that I was a good mother and she will believe she had a happy childhood. We were children together. We are now both careening into adulthood.

Nothing has gone the way I expected. In high school she sits amongst boys who are starting to look like men, talking endlessly about The Biggest Blunt and the Tits on That Girl. All those miniscule Tupperware with miniscule organic snack niblets! Those late nights cutting delicate paper animals from the oblivion of construction paper! The early morning twist of downy blonde hanks of hair into shimmering knots! All to end up next to These Dudes.

IMG_3655Because I’m what other moms call a Young Mom, I’ve gotten access over and over into Sylvia’s world and the auxiliary realms of her peers. When they went through a year-long phase obsessed with “weenies” (read: penis), I was the one they brought their questions to: Does is actually have a bone in it? Is the whole thing hairy or just the balls? Is it the same color as the man who owns it? I showed them what a condom looks like. They passed it between them, like a small band of anthropologists, and with reverence, tucked it into their Book of Weenies.

And this is just what it was like to raise her. I never knew what was coming, and was generally never alarmed by what arrived. I understood that, at best, I could observe, offer some knowledge, feed, read and hug. I was too young to think I knew better. We would figure things out, together.


When I was fifteen and a half I was dating (and fucking) a man five years older than me (whom I met on a bus), drinking and smoking pot in the bed of a pickup as we careened around the sharp turns of my hometown’s mountain roads. At sixteen, I met Sylvia’s father. Two years later, I was pregnant.

No doubt, she has already lived a different life than mine. Occasionally, though, I feel I’m being crushed by time. My choices are gone and replaced by others. Hers are just arriving. A kind of circling back, a shot at something better, grander.

When she told me she wanted to try smoking pot, I admitted my fear. We ran through the familiar list of addicts that weigh down the family tree—Her Uncles (all of them), Her Father (clean for five years), My Father (dying and estranged). “I’m scared, too,” she admitted. Scared that she’ll love it and/or hate it, go crazy from it, suddenly become ruled by a force outside her, or anyone’s, control. These are the conversations that quell my fear that I am the wrong parent for her. I can do this, I tell myself again.

IMG_3656At fifteen, I was not solely ruled by boys. There were the Four Mountain Girls, raised in a tiny town above mine and had known each other their whole lives. They would sit around at lunch embroidering the back pockets of their Levis. No one did anything remotely as interesting as that. Everyone else was screeching around in hand-me-down cars to get to the Taco Bell and back before lunch was over. Not these girls, eating from brown bags, brown rice and big apples, pulling rainbows of thread through the worn denim like the little Earth Mamas in Training that they were. They got high. Their parents grew pot. It wasn’t a big deal.

One afternoon we drove up to “their mountains” and went for a hike. Before we got on the almost invisible trail, they passed around a gargantuan joint and by the time we embarked, I wasn’t sure I could walk. I wasn’t sure I still had legs. But they taught me to put one foot in front of the other, to remember to breathe, to take a sip of water, to let the quiet exist but for the occasional spontaneous rib-cracking laughter. They took their t-shirts off and ran. We were pixies, white streaks of pure girl energy weaving through the forest, pert pink nipples like wildflowers. We were all sunburned and grinning when we finally made it back to the car.

I want Sylvia to feel that good.

Part of me wants her to get stoned, to find a group of girls that spin wool or churn butter and get blazed. To think that she never would is the crazier idea now that we’re here. Yet, for the entirety of her life I’ve held the wish of The Teetotaling Teen. The anomaly. The one that waits until college and frontal lobe development. This seems like what a good parent would hope for.


After my grandmother, Nonie, died two years ago, Sylvia began suffering from almost debilitating bouts of what I would call Acute Grief or The Realization You Will One Day Lose Everyone You Love.

My grandmother was my spiritual and literary North Star. When she found out I was pregnant, she said that my child would be blessed because of who she knew me to be. And isn’t that what we need to know most before embarking on what terrifies us – that someone knows us, and can hold the parts we might abandon in our hurry to become what’s being asked?

Sylvia and Nonie never quite got each other. When we visited, my daughter would close herself into a book and give polite, but short answers to my grandma’s inquiries. As a therapist, Nonie had the goods on everyone in the family. She couldn’t crack Sylvia, though. The two most brilliant lights in my life never truly knew one another.

I was surprised by the strength of her grief when Nonie passed. It was the morning of the funeral, our clothes laid out in black clumps around the room, when Sylvia said she might like to talk to a therapist. I had offered this option to her repeatedly in earnest over the last few years—when school was hard, when her dad and I had separated.  And even though I was brought up by therapy, plunked into my first support group at age thirteen, the thought of her saying yes struck a chord of deep-down Parent Fear, as if that person would be able to strip me naked the way a magician snaps a tablecloth away, revealing how many nights we didn’t have a “proper dinner” or that I once grasped her hand too hard while scrubbing the nail polish from her arms and brand new sheets.

I waited a few weeks until I found out that we couldn’t wait anymore. We were at my in-laws family reunion, held in my hometown, trailers and tents crowded along the frayed river’s edge. Sylvia had settled herself next to an elder aunt who was caring for a miniscule kitten who mewed feebly in protest when the equally small bottle was pressed to its mouth. She has always adored and revered animals, and amongst the group of semi-strangers, she had found a little nook to place herself.


I walked off to the bathroom and on my way back discovered a deserted paint ball course. It was otherworldly—concrete structures build fifty feet into the air, ropes hanging from branches and old military vehicles rusted and splattered with neon paint. I started snapping pictures and didn’t realize how much time had gone by until I heard my name in the distance. My husband was calling to me, on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

The sky had darkened and bulbous clouds hung full above us. As we walked back to the campground, lightning began to spread across the twilight. People were running under shelters, tarps, carrying children and armloads of food into their tents. “There they are,” we heard behind us and see Sylvia walking with my mother-in-law. “She was looking for you guys.” Immediately, I saw that something was wrong. Why did I leave for so long? How could I have gone into that Other World, not thinking about Sylvia? I had assumed she would stay with the kitten.

She and I got to the car, waving goodbye, leaving my husband to stay with his family. My heart was racing. As soon as the door clicked shut, she began to cry. Not just any kind of cry, but like an animal—sobs ripping from her, torrential and unstoppable. I had never seen her cry like this. In fact, I could probably count the times she’s cried over her lifetime on two hands. Her stoicism is one of her defining characteristics—no tears when her father left, no tears when her beloved rabbit died, no tears when she punched the class bully and then got socked in kind. “I couldn’t find you or dad,” she wailed.

“Sweet pea,” I crooned, holding her hand, her long fingers shaking beneath my grasp. I drove us down the road a bit and parked. Rain was battering the windshield and the streets with such impact that it looked like the rain was pushing up through the concrete. “Can you tell me what’s happening?”

“Since Nonie died, it’s been like this,” she began. “All I can think about is that you and dad will die and I will be alone.” She described how she couldn’t bear to be near the kitten any longer, its helplessness so acute, and so she walked down to the river’s edge, looking for us. The skyline was stunning, big weather winding up its colors and heft, and this also broke her heart. “Everything beautiful hurts,” she explained, and when she couldn’t find us, the Future Without came down on her, hard and sharp, flaying what was left of her protective artifice.

The car windows were steamed. We sat, holding hands, for a long time.

Sylvia’s sobs began to lessen, “I don’t know what to do anymore, Mom. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make myself better and nothing works. Even when I’m happy for a moment, I know that the sadness is going to come back, sometimes worse.”

I told her that I know what this feels like, that we are in best possible place to make things better because we haven’t tried anything yet, and there are so many things to try. I told her I would not stop searching until we’d found something that relieved her suffering. I thanked her for letting me in, for allowing me the hold her pain, bright and heavy as it was.

I stopped myself from saying anything else. It wasn’t the time to show her the iridescent scar constellation on my forearms, describe the months I spent in a locked-down fortress, uniformed armies walking me in and out of rooms until I could walk there myself. This was her moment, not mine.


Sylvia’s therapist is convinced she is a “Rainbow Child”—someone who was born to this world to remake it, to heal and to lead. I recalled sitting years ago with her Kindergarten teacher and confessing that I didn’t know how to parent this child. Her self-possession was beyond what I had read about or experienced. She confessed to me then that she had never seen such a complete and unwavering will in a child herself.

What an amazing diagnosis—a Rainbow Child! When in the hospital dealing with my troubles, they labeled me: Major Depression, Suicidal Ideation, Risk of Self Injury. Two decades later, I have hope that we are finding new names for suffering. Words accurate to the ways we all reach for the essential good. Understanding what we lack sometimes is technique.

I know that Sylvia saved my life. At nineteen, feeling her strong kicks and bold breaches against my belly was the purest touch I had ever received from another being, my own low pulse speeding up to catch the certain rhythm of hers. Born in tandem with her was a ferocity I had never known before, as if each of the warriors fighting within me, turned their swords toward the world—a phalanx built over her bassinette.

I know that her life will not be like mine. And in other ways, it will.

She will get stoned. She’ll get so drunk she can’t stand. She’ll meet someone she can’t live without. If I were a good mother, this is what I would hope for—to turn up the contrast, to have it all. Most of the time, I no longer fear what’s coming or whether I’ve fucked it up. It, I understand now, is everything: the offering between her body and mine, the impossibility of protection, the necessity of being known, of missing someone before they’re gone. We are finding our way.

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About the Author

Sarah Pape teaches English and works as the Managing Editor of Watershed Review at California State University, Chico. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in The Rumpus, The Adirondack Review, The California Prose Directory, California Northern, The Superstition Review, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and others. She is currently working on a full-length poetry manuscript and collection of essays.

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