It should have been no surprise then when, in my first summer at the popular seafood restaurant, the owner pulled me aside one day and said, “If you don’t get it together, you’re out of here.” Still it was a jarring blow for an overachiever type like me.
I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. Why was I so bad at this? This was the only job I hadn’t nailed. The owner’s scolding just made my perpetual state of hyper-nervousness worse. I would lie in bed at night, tickets scrolling through my head (one Seafood Newburg, soft shell crabs sautéed, an Islander salad, sauce on the side!). I replayed every mistake, every forgotten order or misspoken word. On a regular basis, I went to work with a knot in my stomach.
But still, I stayed (or rather, was miraculously not fired). The money was good, the location two blocks from my house couldn’t have been more convenient, and the hours were right. I could work nights and still have the summer days to spend with my stepson and young daughter and my husband, a teacher, who was home in the summer.
My waitressing skills did improve somewhat over the next couple years. I didn’t drop as many things, I forgot fewer orders. I liked meeting and serving new and interesting people. My favorite part though, was selling. I loved to describe the dishes to the customers. When I explained, for instance, how the key lime compound butter sauce complemented the delicate grouper and sweet crab meat, I could see my customers’ faces soften in front of me. How satisfying to give a great sell and up a check from a boring $10 burger to a succulent $28 entrée.
Still, I lived with a lingering fear that any mistake I made would put me out of favor with my customers. Not so much that the tip would be bad, that was just a given sometimes, but that they would disapprove of me, look down their noses at what a lousy excuse for a server I was. (Can you believe she forgot my water?) And when I did bang up an order big time, I dreaded going to the table to break the news. But perhaps worse was heading into the kitchen to tell our bombastic chef that I needed a new dinner now. One typical, dreadful evening, as I cowered a veteran waitress said to me, “Honey, it’s just food.” In my head I knew she was right, but I couldn’t shake the burden.
By the end of my second summer at the restaurant, my daughter reached that magic pinnacle of cuteness at 18 months and I caught a bad case of baby fever. By October I was pregnant again and after I gave birth to my daughter Skye in June, I took the summer off to recoup and take care of her.
I had wanted this baby with everything in me, and after two other kids, I thought I was prepared. I had the know-how, I had the diapers, I had a custom-made sling and a copy of Happiest Baby on the Block.
How wrong I was. Skye came out crying and didn’t stop, except to eat, for a year and a half. There was no sleeping, for her, for my husband, and especially me. I moved past the allotted 12 weeks of sleeplessness, and into endless months of sleeping just a couple hours a night. I took a deep descent into a dark, bare existence. I moved through life with a perpetual ache in my chest like I’d been revived after drowning, but just barely. Now I know the reason sleep deprivation was outlawed as a form of torture by the Geneva Convention.
Feelings of isolation and failure flooded my heart as nothing I did seemed to help, and people’s well meaning but placating advice of “let her cry it out” made me feel more and more hopeless.
I questioned myself as a mother. Had I made her this way? Why was she always crying? Why couldn’t she just go to sleep? The questions led to doctor visits and a barrage of tests which revealed nothing.
In the end we concluded that this is who she was, beautiful as an open blue sky for which I named her, and stormy as a hurricane brewing offshore. As I came to grips with the knowledge that I had not turned my precious baby into a crying, sleepless monster, summer approached again and the crying began to wane somewhat. She even started to take naps. She still didn’t sleep through the night, but at least I could get five or six hours in a row most nights. I felt like a human again, though still bloody and battered.
That was the summer that I turned 34, only I had lived most of the last 12 months mistakenly thinking that I was already 34. Ask any new parent, sleep deprivation makes you stupid. So stupid you could forget your own name or how old you are. That’s how I began to refer to it as the lost year—the year I was not 33. It was a year of a lot of losts—lost sanity, lost joy, lost hope, lost health. When it felt that pieces of myself were sloughing off and circling the drain I had assumed that there was nothing good in the loss. How could there be? It was an awful, awful year. What I didn’t know though, now going into that my third summer as a waitress, was that I had lost something I would never want back.
It didn’t hit me until I was in the thick of it one busy weekend night at the restaurant. I was, as we say in the business, in the weeds—busy, busy, busy. In the flurry, I realized I forgot to order an entree for one of my tables. I braced myself for the bottom to fall out of my stomach as it always did when I made that mistake. But it never came. Instead I walked into the kitchen, told the chef, “I forgot an order. I need it on the fly. Sorry.” There was no fear. I walked to the table, told the customer what happened, said, “I’m sorry, you’re dinner will be out in just a couple minutes,” and I walked away. No shame, no knots. I marveled to myself at my new-found freedom, “Where did that come from?”
I couldn’t see it then but, mothering Skye those long months before, through colic and exhaustion, projectile vomit and blood tests, reduced me like a sauce cooking down. That year of survival thickened my love for her. It sharpened my sense of self. It burned off the fear of losing other people’s approval. It added a new dimension to me.
The lost year took with it the residue of adolescence I didn’t know I had been wearing. At some point in that year that I wasn’t 33, without realizing it, I grew up. In losing myself to my daughter that year, I found a grown-up version of myself.
The funny thing is that before the lost year I just assumed I was already a grown up. But now that I had experienced life boiled down to the bare bones, I could see all the other things I had worried about for what they really were—just a little excess fat floating to the surface, ready to be skimmed off.
As I stood in the busy dining room that night, a much younger server whizzed by me, a terrified look on her face, muttering “Oh no, I forgot to put their entrée in!” The old waitress saying came back to me, I leaned over to her and said, “Honey, it’s just food.” And for once, I knew it to be true.