For years, my aunt Mary Lou would throw up every day before she got into the shower to get ready for work. It wasn't an illness or dietary intolerance or an eating disorder.
It was much, much simpler: she hated her job.
But day after day, year after year, she got out of bed, threw up, put on a skirt suit with shoulder pads and went in anyway. She had to. There were people depending on her.
Mary Lou was the second of six girls. The oldest was a wild child and the next youngest, my mother, was a drifting dreamer. Mary Lou was the responsible one. When something needed doing, she was the one who did it.
Through a bad marriage, a divorce and multiple depressions, Mary Lou held it together. Sometimes just barely, sometimes by the barest tips of her fingernails. Her house might be filling with unwashed dishes and a dry, dead Christmas tree in July, but her mortgage was paid on time and her son was clean, fed and in Catholic school, all because she kept getting up and going in to a job she despised so much it made her physically ill.
Work is how we show love in my family. My grandfather held three jobs when his girls were little. My mother used to ride with him sometimes when he drove the milk truck (Job #2) and those are some of the happiest memories of her childhood.
Work equals love. I internalized this from a young age. No lie - I used to resent my parents for not having a family business I could work in as a kid. I couldn't wait to get my first job in a used bookstore when I was 14.
And I worked steadily, non-stop, often at multiple jobs from then until the economy tanked. I knew going into unemployment that it would be hard for me in ways that had nothing to do with money. How would I show the Songwriter how much I loved and cared for him if I wasn't bringing home a paycheck?
Back to Mary Lou. With apologies to Mom's younger sisters Shelly and Loretta, Mary Lou was my favorite aunt. She was solid and funny and smart and kind. She had dark hair, like me, and let me borrow her books, even the ones I wasn't supposed to be old enough to read. I wanted to be just like he when I grew up.
After years of unhappiness, something wonderful happened. Mary Lou met a younger man, a friend of her sister's, and they fell in love. And got married. And were generally awesome together. She still had the job she hated, but her confidence was growing, and she was starting to think that maybe she could have more, do more with her life.
Then she got cancer for the first time.
It was a tumor on the lymph node in her neck. Chemo and radiation and heartbreak ensued. But she beat it. The bottom half of her hair grew back, she and my uncle redecorated the house, and they picked right back up with enjoying each other and planning their future.
It took another few years, but Mary Lou finally decided to start her own company, along with a couple of friends from the job she hated. They would do the work they enjoyed, but out from under the oppressive place and people that had made them so miserable. Letterhead was designed. Paperwork was filed. Offices were rented.
And then she got up in the middle of the night to get some water, and her leg broke.
A lump in her breast, which she'd been too frightened to get checked, had spread to her bones. From there it was a long, bittersweet road. Mary Lou died in December of 1999, leaving behind her only son, her adoring husband who had cared for her for so long, and the rest of us who loved her.
She once talked to me about unhappiness. About how the anger and the misery turned inward never leads to anything good. She didn't tell me outright that she believed it caused her cancer, but that was what I took from our talk.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I find myself coming home from work every day now with my guts in a free falling knot. When I woke up on Thursday and my first thought was "Please don't make me go back there today." I woke up on Friday and rushed to the bathroom, sure I was going to be sick.
And I thought of Mary Lou.
I'm lucky. I have options. We have no children, we have no debt. My parents are still healthy and don't rely on me for care or support. But exercising those options is a choice.
There are so many things I have on my big, life-sized to-do list. And if I let this job get to me, let it grind me down because I think I have to, then I am admitting that I am willing to abandon the people I love in the name of some short-term monetary compensation, or worse, in the name of ego as my family's breadwinner.
This is deeply scary stuff to think about. So scary in fact that it's taken me months to be able to look it in the eye and name it for what it is. So scary that I have set this post to go live at a time when I will be at a Ramones tribute show, and won't be able to change my mind at the last minute.
So I find myself at a crossroads. Am I going to suck it up and take it, because that's what we're "supposed" to do and the alternatives are uncertain? Or am I going to choose happiness and love and saying yes to life and not living scared?
I hope Mary Lou would be proud of me.