Lies You’ve Been Told About Time – Shannon Hernandez – Medium
Why It’s Not About Where You’ve Been, but How Far You’ve Come
Time is measured in moments.
Time is also measured in minutes. At 10:12 pm, 34 years ago today, I burst into a moment in time where I was unceremoniously blinded by fluorescent lighting and gloriously crowd-surfed over a flurry of latex-gloved hands.
Unlike that early experience might suggest, I did not grow up to be a rock star. (Although the piercings, tattoos, and short edgy hair might make you think otherwise if you spotted me on the street.) I did, however, grow up, and in many ways, a lot sooner than most.
As I lay there in bed this morning, I started thinking about those quote ‘milestone’ birthdays that everyone looks back on and how my memories don’t reflect most people’s experiences.
And how that’s ok. Even better than ok.
8 Years Old
When I was 8, my father turned blue in a bathtub and nearly drowned because of his severe alcoholism. His liver was literally shutting down and taking the rest of him with it.
I remember being woken by my mother, who had my older brother in tow, and her telling me they were taking my father to the hospital and that I needed to take care of my little brother until they came back.
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know, your father is very sick.”
Little did I know then, I would be taking care of my little brother pretty much from that point on. My father was incapable of working with such severe alcoholism and the homebuilding business he owned was slowly going under. Then he fell off a roof at one of his job sites and broke his leg in three places.
While he was confined to a wheelchair for six months, I became caretaker to him and mother to my younger brother since my mom was forced to go back to work. It served a dual purpose for her though, as I later realized. She got to distract herself with something outside of the chaotic household and fittingly got to play the poor martyred wife, the role she lived for.
My older brother was no help because he kept running off to the city for long periods and was heavily involved in gang life during this time.
So I would come home from school, clean the house, help my little brother with his homework, and make sure he got fed with whatever I could muster up at that age. After putting him to bed, I still had to finish my homework before I could go to sleep. The next morning, I had to get both of us off to school.
Meanwhile, I was holding my nose emptying my father’s piss bottle in the toilet at regular intervals (a plastic water bottle he used openly in front of us).
I found out years later he was actually far more capable than he let on, despite the injury. I also found out that when my mother got home from work, he told her that he cleaned the house and fed both of us. I wasn’t exactly upset so much as relieved when he packed a bag a few years later, handed my mom $30 ($10 for each kid, I guess), and left us.
One moment I remember vividly from this time was when I heard something over the roar of the vacuum and looked up. I remember staring out of the front window, watching some kids my age that I had gotten off the school bus with that afternoon, playing on the sidewalk in front of my house.
I just stood there, with the vacuum still on and unmoving, thinking that I should have been out there, doing what those kids were doing, but instead I was inside, doing what those kids’ mothers were probably doing.
Not So Sweet 16
My life continued on fairly tumultuously until my teenage years. I dropped out about three months into my freshman year of high school at 14 years old. I immediately started working full time to help support my mom and younger brother and was never enrolled in home school. (My mother, always the helpless victim in any situation, was more concerned about sharing the burden of responsibility in the household than setting me up for success.)
I always just shrug when people say, “You know, like back in high school (fill in the blank),” because no, I really don’t know.
Because I didn’t have the typical high school experience, I never had a prom, or any school dances for that matter. I didn’t get a car for my sixteenth birthday (because we were broke) and I never had a graduation party.
You know, all of these moments that we’re told we’ll look back on for the rest of our lives with nostalgic affection.
I worked at a restaurant during this time and my peers consisted of some high school kids my age, who were working part-time for the spare cash, and some older guys who worked the cooking ‘line’ in the kitchen with us. I was the only female, which I usually preferred anyway, and once I had proven myself to the guys, they accepted me and welcomed me as one of their own.
Instead of high school parties, after the restaurant closed down and the waitresses had gone home, we raided the bar and got wildly, stupidly drunk. During the day, we’d pull pranks on the wait staff, take smoke breaks on the back porch with a pipe we passed around, and generally acted like typical teenagers.
I took a second cooking job in a vain attempt to save for college, at a smaller café further into town. The cook that trained me was leaving after the summer was over, off to study music at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His parents were from the nicer part of town, not insanely wealthy, but could certainly afford to send him to college, as well as provide him with a secondhand BMW to drive around.
I remember standing at the prep counter cutting an onion when the wait staff suddenly came bursting into the kitchen with balloons and presents for the guy who was going off to a new life in college. Everything was happening for him; his life was clearly moving forward in a way everyone says it should.
I thought about how I lived in an apartment where my younger brother slept on a couch in the living room. Or how it would take me until I was in my thirties to save up for college on the minimum wage salary I was making. Oh, and while they were having a party for the guy out front, I needed to empty and clean out the grease trap and couldn’t clock off until it was done.
I remember standing there thinking that I would never have a celebratory send-off like that and that I was glad it was an onion I was cutting.
21st — 1st Combat Deployment
On the one day of my life that I could have flashed my ID and more than likely been offered a free drink from virtually anywhere in the US, I was on my first deployment in a foreign country where alcohol wasn’t permitted to be sold (officially, anyway) and in the Army where we weren’t allowed to drink while on tour (even though we still did, unofficially).
I couldn’t even partake in any of the alcohol we weren’t supposed to have because I was on mission in Mosul that day.
Iraq can be a pretty barren landscape most of the time, but it makes for some spectacular sunrises and sunsets. With nothing much on the ground to distract the eye, the sky takes center stage and produces some of the most stunning neon pinks, fiery corals, and vivid violets. Sometimes they can even take on a Northern Lights effect, iridescent blues and jeweled mauves stretching outward like wings as if the sky itself is about to take flight.
I had just gotten off a mission one evening when I paused for a moment to savor one of these vistas when a memory floated back to me unexpectedly and seemingly from out of nowhere.
It was something my mother said that had always stuck with me because, for all the bullshit that came out of her mouth, this one thing rang absolutely true.
We were in a car in central Germany. My mother had come to visit me where I was first stationed in the Army and one of the female soldiers in my unit was driving us back from the airport. My mother asked what had led her to decide to join the Army.
She responded off the cuff, “Oh, I don’t know, I just had a patriotic bur up my ass that I couldn’t quite shake.”
My mother nodded and said, “Shannon joined the Army to prove to herself that she’s more of a man than her father.”
I was stunned. I think my jaw literally dropped because she had just plainly articulated something out loud I had only had a silent, shapeless inkling of, but was never able to form into words.
It made me realize that I was capable of doing the right thing, despite the lack of a better example, and that I was willing to do what I felt was necessary to carve out a better life for myself from the granite circumstances I’d been given.
I stood there, with my helmet cradled in the crook of my elbow and the M16 slung across my back, in a foreign land nearly 7,000 miles from the only home I had ever known. I thought about how I didn’t just step up to the plate for my own family, but for my country.
I stared into that sunset and thought maybe that memory didn’t bubble up to the surface for seemingly no reason, but to remind me that I wasn’t just better than my father because of what I did differently; I was better because of what I’d been through.
30th — Holy Shit, I’m Not in My 20’s Anymore
I had a friend at the time I turned 30 who was still single and unmarried. She had turned 30 shortly before me and was upset that she was not where she thought she should have been by this point in her life.
People typically tend to feel that by the time you turn 30, you should have already hit a lot of ‘crucial’ milestones in your life. You feel that way because of the importance society places on certain life events and the way it encourages the pursuit of what are considered ‘socially acceptable’ life goals.
The pressure we feel to meet these milestones at a particular point in time reinforces the lie by creating an illusion of importance. The inability to check these items off our ‘life list’ at the appropriate time leaves us feeling like failures at life itself because we are following a carefully constructed definition of success very few of us have the desire, means, or just good fortune to actually accomplish.
It’s generally expected that by the age of 30, you should have found your life partner, own a home, maybe even had a few kids already, and established yourself in your career.
Or, you could be like me, in your junior year of college (compliments of my GI Bill), still not sure if I wanted kids and not knowing what my career would look like after I graduated. I had married my husband at 21, so I had that going for me, but we had already been married 10 years and were still childless (unless you counted a very spoiled rescue dog, which we do).
I spent my 20’s in the Army, traveling the world and getting to see some really awesome places and do some really incredible things, but I also had to spend more time than I preferred in some really rough places doing some really hard things. Because of this, I didn’t go to college until I was almost 28 years old, which was interesting in a very different way than most college experiences.
Not surprisingly, most of the people I shared my classes with were in their young 20’s and in a very different place in their lives. I would watch them stumble in hungover and think about my own hungover mornings in the Army.
Only instead of stumbling into a classroom at 10 am, I was struggling to hold myself upright in formation at 0630 (6:30 am), and instead of having to sit in a chair and try to stay awake and not throw up, I had to go run 8 miles to the river outside the base (and yes, this does make you throw up, a lot, but you just keep on running anyways).
I remember one day in class pulling out my lunch cooler and beginning to unpack my items all carefully wrapped and Breakfast Club style (if you’ve never seen the movie, it’s a scene where this guy pulls out a lot of food items). The 20-year old that sat next to me that normally didn’t say much to me besides “Wussup?” when she sat down was looking at me in awe.
I caught her eye and she said, “You pack your lunch every day and I’m lucky if I find change in my pockets for the vending machine.”
She shook her head slowly. “You’re like a unicorn, man.”
And that was it. That was the moment I knew I wasn’t in my 20’s anymore. Because a 20 year old looked at me and my ‘adulting’ as if I was a mythical creature displaying magical powers of prior planning.
And you know what? That’s ok because I don’t really miss being hungover all the time. Or hungry and unprepared.
Now, here I am at 34, sure that I want kids (surer than anything I’ve ever been sure of in my life — ever), but for reasons that are too lengthy to disclose at this point in the article, cannot start to try at this time. Which sucks, because, from a biological and fertility standpoint, I’m rapidly running out of time.
Lying in bed this morning, I realized that it doesn’t matter because a year from now, I could be pregnant for all I know. Or I could have cancer. Or I could have won the lottery and left my husband for some younger man (just kidding, babe, you know you’re stuck with me for life).
The point is that I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s not about where I think I should be right now, in this moment. It’s about how far I’ve come since all those other moments that I thought defined me at the time.
So I’m going to keep shaping my own destiny and watching for opportunities to seize because no one else can do it for me. I’m going to decide things for myself without letting the white noise of what others think drown out my inner voice. I’m going to keep being an active participant in my own life and not just follow a trail blindly because it’s the one that’s been blazed by the majority and is the one I’m expected to follow.
Because I know that someday, when all the shit I’m dealing with today is relocated to a shelf of memories, I will look down at my child’s face and think:
Life is measured in moments. And I just want to lie in this one for a while.