i can’t

I’m not an “I can’t sort of person.  There are times when I really can’t–I can’t have lunch with you because I have a dentist appointment, a meeting, a conflict.  But for the big things in life, the difficult things, I’ve always prided myself on saying, “I can.” I’ll stay up all night if I have to finish something. I can do it by tomorrow. I’ll do things that I’m afraid of. I’ll talk to people I don’t really like and be as sweet as pie. I’m good at being a shoulder to cry on, even when I have my own things to cry about. I CAN.  Or until recently, I could.

Twice in the last two months, I’ve heard the words, “I can’t,” come out of my mouth. One of these was emotional. I was losing one of the most precious people in the world to me. I was with my family, supporting them and being supported by them, all of us grieving and helping each other.  In another day she would be gone, and I would have a lifetime of dealing with the space she left behind. And then, another problem happened. I was asked to deal with it,  and I started to, and then I couldn’t.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m topped out. I just can’t.” And wonder of wonders, someone else took the problem and solved it. I didn’t have to. But a part of me felt this was a defeat. Why couldn’t I? Aren’t I the “I can” kid? Maybe, I wasn’t who I thought I was after all.

And then a few weeks later, I was driving on a highway, a particular road that I hate, that I get out of driving when I can, but I always do when I must, because I can.  And then I couldn’t. I was going 40 mph and had a death grip on the steering wheel. I was in an unsafe situation, and my daughter was in the car with me. “Get out your phone, and find me another road,” I said. And she did. We got where we had to go. I took a state road down and back. We just went a different way.

When I questioned myself later, this is what I discovered. I usually draw on an emotional reserve when things are tough or challenging or scary. I had used that up. All up. Grief had drained it dry. I needed to put back that reserve, to gently fill the well.  And in the meantime, I don’t have to climb every mountain. I can go a different way. I can let someone else do the hard thing once in a while. My pride took a bit of a whack last month because I had reached my limit, and I had never admitted before that I had one. Now I’ve seen it, and I’m more human and a bit wiser because of it.

Mostly, I still believe that I can. But when I can’t, I won’t beat myself up about it. I CAN have a limit. I CAN choose to say “I can’t.” It’s still my choice. And I’m okay with that. For now.

Middlebury College, CTLR Director