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By Jeffrey Kelly
When I was young, my parents would come home weary every evening from long work shifts — my mom in wrinkled blue scrubs and worn New Balances and my dad in singed rust-covered uniforms and dirty steel-toed boots. We’d talk about our days as I finished homework or read Magic Tree House books from the library, and before the end of the night, they’d warn me not to do “backbreaking” work like they did and not to have “just a job” to pay the bills but a career that I loved that didn’t leave me living paycheck to paycheck.
For years, I’d watched them work themselves to the bone to keep our family afloat, so it wasn’t something that needed to be said explicitly. I often thought of the future as an escape. I dreamed about the career I’d have and the money I’d be able to share with them. They’d know I had listened, and all their hard work had not been for nothing. And as I grew up, my focus stayed on making that happen.
Yet now, I find myself questioning that focus. As the leaves change color, Halloween decorations make their way to store shelves, and the sun begins to set earlier than usual, during my typical late nights spent being “productive,” I wonder what am I doing this for?
The same hustle and bustle of the beginning of the year and summer seem to dissipate. For me, especially since the pandemic, it feels like time has flown by in the blink of an eye. Another academic semester is well underway or beginning to wrap up, people have started making plans for the holidays. Films, TV shows, and commercials of family and friends celebrating togetherness populate popular media.
And as I examine where the time has gone, I’ve always felt a certain hollowness in my chest because since college, every year I look back on becomes less and less anything but work.
For so long, I’ve been so focused on this ideal future that I’ve let my personal needs slip into the background. I’ve neglected my health and wellness, missed doctor’s appointments, missed meals or ate only junk food, and spent weeks at a time not sleeping before midnight or not waking up before noon unless it was required. I’ve neglected my friends and family, allowed due dates, meetings and overwhelming anxiety about the future to keep me from responding and spurring them to constantly ask, “where have you been?”
“We haven’t seen you in forever,” they say over the phone on the rare occasion I pick up, and I roll my eyes and respond, “That’s not true. We talk all the time.” But I know it’s been too long since we last spoke, and instantly, I feel worse for neglecting them and denying it. And then feel even worse for the split-second thought of an excuse for why I can’t come home because I can’t stand to hear my parents praise me as if I’m doing so well because I don’t think I am. So I add it to the list of truths I keep from my parents.
But then I remember all the holidays we’d spent together before college. Just the three of us, enjoying our days off and in each other’s company. No decorations, regardless of the holiday, but the apartment still had a joyful warmth. My father and I sat in the living room, offering support to my mother while she lovingly crafted meals, but only from a distance since we tended to get on her nerves when she was in the kitchen.
One Thanksgiving when she got the flu and started feeling sick while cooking, my father and I finished the partially cooked ham, mac and cheese, dressing and deviled eggs while my mother lay sickly on the couch, dolling out instructions that only partially made sense. But we succeeded and enjoyed a meal that we’d made together. We didn’t care that soon we’d all be sick. It didn’t matter because we were together and full. To me, that’s what this time of year had always meant.
And in those moments where I allow myself to get out of my head, to take my eyes off the future and be present, I realize that no one’s putting this pressure on me but myself because even if I didn’t have money or a future, I still had their love, and that’s enough.
Jeffrey Kelly is a Birmingham native in the second year of his Master of Fine Art program at the University of Alabama. He serves as the managing editor for the University’s student newspaper, The Crimson White, the website editor for the University’s student magazine, Alice Magazine, and also freelances.