The One Thing Worse than Has-Been

“Mom, I think you messed up. You should have been a singer. I mean, you could’ve really been somebody.”

It was just chatter, I told myself. My eleven-year-old casually moved on in the conversation that had become one-sided, as I tried to heave my weary heart away from old wounds suddenly renewed.

She, thankfully, is still in the big-dreaming phase of life, where every possibility seems wide open and every path seems to unfurl at her feet. The accolades are pouring in and it feels good.

I know, because I remember.

There was a time when I was somebody in the sense she means, at least on a small scale. I cleaned up at awards nights in school; colleges fell all over themselves to try to get me to attend (apparently acing half the SAT and doing alright on the other half will do that).

The attention was embarrassing to my hella-introverted self, but it also felt good. I was carried on those tides, swept up in the belief that if I reached for that brass ring, I’d feel it in my hand. On and on. Ring after ring.

What they don’t tell you is that eventually, the cheering stops. And when it does, if you don’t know who you are and what you want, you can get lost in the sudden silence. It can be a rude awakening to discover that your inner voice, the only voice in the room at that point, is not on your side.

When I stopped pleasing everyone, when I was past aiming for academic perfection and all of the noise died away, I had no idea what to do or why I should do it. I’d had big dreams once…but I had spent enough time in reality to lose sight of them. Those brass rings were so far overhead now, and all I could think about was how short my arms suddenly seemed.

I stopped reaching. I became a has-been.

I told myself I was happy with the regular little life I built and with the daily hum of needs-must and to-do. It was a comfortable lie, save for the moments when the past would break through and poke me in the ribs. Remember? Remember when you were someone?

Or, according to my daughter, when I could have been someone.

These thoughts have returned an old Emerson Drive song called “Moments” to the forefront of my half-jukebox brain:

“I said, you know
I haven’t always been this way

I’ve had my moments
Days in the sun
I was second to none
When I knew I did
What I thought I couldn’t do…
Yeah, looking at me now you might not know it
But I’ve had my moments…”

(You see, dear daughter, this overweight, rather nondescript, placid mom of yours was once a spitfire who chafed at constraints, with dreams burning brightly and fingers outstretched, arms wide to embrace this crazy-beautiful world. I love it still, but some things have gone to sleep for me that will not wake.)

I have this terrible suspicion that when we stop reaching for those darned rings, eventually they disappear, and who’s to say more will happen along?

What if I’d given it everything I had, back when everything was still bright and hopeful? What if? What if??

I’m reminded here of a line from Letters to Juliet (Claire reading Sophie’s letter to her):

“‘What’ and ‘If’ are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if?”

The only thing worse than has-been is never-was.


[Note: No, this post is not a thinkpiece on some great issue of our time. It’s in a navel-gazing vein. This I know. I have the right to do that, to be vulnerably human here on my own platform. Comments are disallowed on this post. I don’t need your pity, your disdain, or a stern “chin up” — or anything else. I will rise, tomorrow. Today, I’m tired and aching — and this is me holding space for that. There will probably be a Part 2 at some point.]