83: The Girl in the Box

83: The Girl in the Box

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

The Girl in the Box

Enjoy the little things,
for one day you may look back
and realize they were the big things.

~Robert Brault

I stumbled upon the box one rainy afternoon while cleaning out the garage. Buried beneath an artificial Christmas tree and a clump of cobwebs, the box was just one of the many I hadn’t had the energy to unpack since our move back to California. To my surprise, a pile of school yearbooks, old photographs, birthday cards, and trinkets greeted me as I plunged my hand inside. The contents of my life, all shoved into a ragged box that had survived one too many moves.

I set the lid back on the box, not sure I was really ready to tackle this stuff today. As the rain pounded down on the garage roof, I buried my face in my hands and let the tears fall. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried today. The littlest things seemed to set me off these days … burning a piece of toast, losing my keys, my feeble macaroni and cheese dinner going unappreciated by four whiny kids. I felt like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any given second. What was wrong with me?!

Three years ago, we’d packed up the biggest U-Haul we could find and set off for Arizona, dreaming about a fresh start for our growing family. We had joined the “gold rush movement” out of California, purchasing our first home in a place we were assured was the “perfect family environment.” Our new town boasted landscaped parks on every corner, sprawling new homes, and all the promise of a good life. When my husband secured a great job in the city, it seemed everything was truly falling into place. Our dreams were finally coming true!

The minute the four walls went up in our new home, however, everything inside of it seemed to crumble. My oldest son was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, while my youngest suffered from extreme colic. My husband’s job that had seemed so promising began to wear on him, while I tried to hold down the fort at home with what little energy I had left. To top it off, our finances took a nosedive, which baffled me to no end. Hadn’t we moved out here for a better life?

One afternoon, things hit rock bottom. As the temperature peaked at 120 degrees, our brand new air conditioner went out, forcing us to drive to a hotel. My husband threw his work clothes into the trunk of the battered 1995 Ford Taurus he’d traded in his new car for, and looked down at me sadly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “If I’d known things would turn out like this … ”

Nearly three years after making our move, I found myself once again packing boxes. The tears I’d stored up for so long fell at last as I mourned our dreams. My husband’s company had relocated, and he’d taken a position back in California. With the feeble real estate market, it looked as though we’d have to go through a foreclosure on our home. The home we’d saved for, dreamed about, built from the ground up. With a last glance at my coveted granite countertops, I hoisted the boxes into the moving truck and tried not to look back.

I put on a brave smile for the kids as we hiked up the steps of our “new” rental home in California. “Look at the view!” I gushed, trying to stay positive. But that night, as I tossed and turned, I felt anywhere but home. We’d tried so hard to make things work! How could we have failed?!

Within weeks of our return to California, I grew ill with a terrible virus, which left me debilitated for months. Too fatigued to get out and socialize, I became isolated and depressed. Any hope of trying to make a new life here went right out the window. On a good day, I managed to throw a chicken in the Crock-Pot and wash my hair. The vivacious woman who’d once been the type-A party planner, the leader, the social butterfly, was now hardly recognizable with her matted hair and dirty sweatpants.

It was on one of those days, when I hadn’t managed to change out of my sweats or wash my hair, that I stumbled upon the box. Figuring I might as well tackle the daunting pile of stuff we hadn’t unpacked since our move, I set up the kids with a cartoon video and busied myself in the garage. Three hours later, I’d polished off an entire bag of Cheetos but hadn’t made a dent in the stuff. And then I opened the box.

At last, I took a deep breath and popped the lid off again. One by one, I pulled out the items. A photograph of me, smiling on my graduation day with a silly lei around my neck and my husband-to-be beaming proudly beside me. A card from my best friend, telling me how much it meant to her that I took the time for a good heart-to-heart. My daughter’s first sonogram photo, on which I’d happily scrawled: “It’s a girl!” A Valentine’s card from my son, complete with a set of pink handprints. My high school yearbook, in which I boasted the world’s worst perm. A dusty wooden plaque for participating in the state spelling bee. (I got out on the word “adjacent,” which I’ll never misspell again in my life!)

As I sifted through the things, the tears fell once again. All these precious things, gone untouched for years, just waiting for me like a sacred gift. Pieces of me, of my life … pieces I’d somehow lost along the way. Where was that smiling girl with the bad perm? (My hair hadn’t improved much since then, but still … when was the last time I’d smiled like that?)

Glancing back down at a photo, I shook my head. Somehow along the way, I’d lost myself. In the hustle and bustle of life, I’d let myself, and everything that really mattered go. While pursuing the dreams the world told me to have, I’d missed out on the very things before my eyes. And when those dreams had been shattered, I’d forgotten how far I’d come, how much I’d been blessed.

That was the day I decided to start living again. I picked up that box, picked up those pieces, and instead of shutting the lid, I opened my heart. I lounged in bed on Saturday mornings with my kids instead of rushing off to do the laundry. I counted stars with my daughter on our steps one rare clear-skied night. I let my son lick the cookie batter out of the bowl without reprimanding him about germs. I rolled down the car windows and took the coastal route home, blasting Bon Jovi and drumming the steering wheel like a teenager. And for once, I didn’t care what anyone thought about me.

I’m thankful for that girl in the box. She taught me that life is not always easy, but that at the end of the day, it’s in the midst of these trials that we find ourselves, stronger than we thought we were, thankful for the simple things, celebrating the past, and looking forward.

~Karen Koczwara

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