The airport has always overwhelmed me in its chaos. Even as a child, before entering the airport itself, I would get an adrenaline rush from the lines of cars lurching forward, hunks of gleaming metal piled behind one another as far as the eye could see. In between the honking and yelling, the distinct sound of planes taking off always put me on edge.
As much as I hated the airport, however, I loved the arrivals terminal. I could never peel my eyes away from the small area where my parents usually exited after trips to Guatemala. I would cling to the rail separating visitors from those landing, excitedly waiting to see my mom or dad walk through the doors.
My parents visited Guatemala often and every time they landed back in Los Angeles, I would immediately ask what they brought me. The opening of their luggage and the spilling out of its contents was my favorite part of their return. I waited for them to show me what they brought back, and insisted on checking every crevice of their suitcases in case they missed something.
After one trip, my mom brought back a few beige, oval containers. They were small gifts, little souvenirs she bought for her coworkers from the Mercado Central, a shopping center filled to to the brim with dulces tipicos (sweets), huaraches, and clothing. The containers held tiny worry dolls stacked on top of one another. They came in different colors, and were about as thin as my pinky finger.
A small piece of paper inside the container read: There is a legend amongst the highland Indian village of Guatemala. If you have a problem, then share it with a Worry-doll. Before going to bed, tell one worry to each doll, then place them beneath your pillow. Whilst you sleep the dolls will take your worries away .
At eleven years old, I couldn’t grasp the full meaning of the dolls. I played with them like toys, relishing them as I did all the trinkets my mom and dad brought back for me. Their colorful clothing was made up of simple bits of yarn and material wrapped around the stick that made up their bodies. They never seemed to have genders, but I gave them roles, making some of them the husbands and others the wives. I would make up stories about them: how the man waited for the woman to come home and make dinner. It didn’t occur to me to store them under my pillow. I didn’t have any real worries to whisper to them.
Worry, in its purest and most debilitating form, didn’t come to me fully until the year in which I dropped my dad off at the airport for the last time. I remember a sense of dread filled me, although I didn’t know how to vocalize it. I hugged him goodbye, but his embrace didn’t seem to match the intensity of mine. The rest of my family waited until I finally let go.
As the date of his return got closer and closer, I thought about what he might bring back for me. One day I woke up to find his luggage in the living room. I ran to my mom’s room expecting to see him, but only found her and my brother. “Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s not here,” she responded, looking tired. “He got really sick on the plane. He’s in the hospital.”
Growing up, I understood life didn’t always work out the way you think it should. I understood that my dad stayed home because his thumb was damaged on the job, cut in a way that caused irreversible damage. I understood that I couldn’t touch it too hard or it would make him wince. Watching him from behind our metal front door as he sat on the porch, a cigarette in his hand, I understood that he was unhappy.
But I never really worried. I hopped into his truck each day after school, the smell of leather and cigarette smoke more familiar to me than anything else. Why did I need to worry when he was there, always, to take me home? I knew he’d sink himself into his brown armchair and let me watch Hawaii Five-O with him. I would do my homework, we would eat dinner, he would tell me jokes.
But when I got to the hospital, worry permeated my body. I listened to the doctor explain that my father’s organs were failing, but none of it really registered. Then, on my twelfth birthday, my dad, the most important person in my life, left me and my world fell apart.
I couldn’t deal with the grief—the way it hung over my family, the way it made me feel like my insides were slowly unspooling. “Why won’t you cry?” my mom would ask me. I felt the other stages of grief more intensely. I was furious that everyone let this happen, that they were trying to make me feel better, as if they could take away a pain I knew was irreparable. We had all thought my dad would get better, that he would leave the hospital after a few days. None of us were prepared for him to die, and the loss left us reeling.
I often shut myself in my room to play guitar. “Why would she play music right now?” I once heard my mother ask my sister.
“Just let her do what she needs to do,” my sister replied wearily.
After my siblings left, my mom and I felt the full weight of a quiet house. We had lost the same man, but we couldn’t seem to grieve together. Nothing seemed certain anymore. I worried everyone would leave me, that the moment I least suspected it, they would be gone. I became obsessive in my fear—I worried my best friends would stop liking me, that my mom would die in a freak accident. Eventually, I worried about getting close to anyone out of fear that one day that person would leave me and the pain would be too much. I pushed the people closest to me away, even while I ached for them to comfort me.
My mom stayed strong. I never heard her complain about all the stress she underwent after my dad’s death; on top of figuring out funeral arrangements, she now needed to deal with house payments and raising a preteen. At night, I heard her cry herself to sleep in the bed we frequently shared. I knew she waited for my breathing to slow down, but I rarely fell asleep before she did. I worried I might never know how to make her feel better.
Even though we struggled to understand each other, I grew to recognize her strength. “If it weren’t for you, I would’ve given up,” she told me many times. “But I have you to take care of. I have to keep going. I can’t just crumble.”
It took her a while to pack up my dad’s belongings. I remember opening the drawers of her dresser one day, pawing through its contents and holding his watch, his aviator sunglasses, his cellphone. I found the worry dolls there again, bittersweet reminders of a simpler time. They were simple objects, fashioned out of yarn and sticks. If you pulled on the fabric of their little outfits, you could easily take them apart.
When I left home for college, I forgot about them. Over the years, I made other people my worry dolls—fashioned and shaped them into who I needed them to be during one of the hardest times of my life. I continuously came up with new crushes, telling myself the next boy would save me from myself. In high school, I constantly changed my mind on the person closest to me but expected her to always be there when I needed her. In college, I turned drunken, late-night conversations into life-altering moments, tricking myself into thinking they would teach me how to let my grief go.
A lot of the times my friends would tease me. “You really don’t know how to be alone, do you?” one of my closest friends asked. I shrugged it off, told her it wasn’t my fault that I was so wanted.
I craved attention from complete strangers. I thought that if enough boys desired me, I could cast them away at my own whim. I could take some control back. But I always looked for more, delirious with the hope that one of these late-night trysts would restore my faith that someone could stay. I handed them all my insecurities in drunken bits and hoped they’d put me back together again so I could wake up a different person in the morning. It rarely worked out that way.
It wasn’t until years later that I reckoned with the depression that had chipped away at my psyche since my father’s death. I saw different counselors on and off through undergraduate and graduate school. When I moved back to Los Angeles after two years of being away, I made an appointment with the psychiatry department for the first time in my life. The intake specialist asked me questions about my background and my mood. When she asked if I could see a psychiatrist the next day, I wavered.
“You are severely depressed,” she said, looking steadily into my eyes. “You need to make time for this appointment.”
I relented, suddenly so sad at the idea that a complete stranger could see the cracks in me even when I didn’t want to see them myself.
After seeing the psychiatrist, I walked away with a prescription for Lexapro that I hoped would help, but I worried it would completely change me. I worried it would just make me more depressed, or numb my emotions so much I would become apathetic. I worried about what my friends and family would think, about what would happen if I could never find myself again. I worried that a fog would surround me; that I would move through life more slowly, never really seeing what was in front of me. But l ittle by little, I started to find myself again. I took on the difficult task of making myself feel valid, instead of looking for justification from other people.
In the midst of it all, the worry dolls kept finding me. I moved to San Francisco, and when I came back home to LA I settled in one neighborhood for less than a year before moving again. I don’t remember packing the dolls or taking them out. I found the dolls, again, underneath my bathroom sink, buried between tampons and old makeup. They were reminders of a time when maybe I could have still believed they would help me—that they could absorb my worries while I slept.
But they don’t work. I know that now and maybe I always did. I see them as a symbol, a reminder not to let my worries consume me. They serve as a reminder of my mother’s strength and my father’s love. From the hardest loss of my life to the challenges that came afterward (and will continue to come), I made it through on my own strength and the support of the people around me. In learning that nothing was certain—that no worry could ever really be solved, worry dolls or not—I found my own resilience. In the moments when I thought I finally hit my rock bottom, I always clawed myself out. I know the dolls will be there when I need them. But they’ve watched me get through everything on my inner strength alone.