It took twenty-two years of life to learn that narwhals are real animals. A Narwhal, not narwhale, is a medium-sized whale with a gigantic tusk protruding from the top of its head. If you’ve seen the movie Elf, a narwhal emerges from the water and says, “Bye, Buddy, hope you find your dad.” If you grew up in the 1990s and had a Lisa Frank coloring book, a narwhal could be found on the pages you colored. If you were a cartographer in the 1800s, a narwhal is what you drew on the edge of your map.
In my mind, narwhals are in the same family as unicorns. Unicorns are horses with protruding horns but are fictional. Narwhals are whales with protruding horns but are real. I found this out when my best friend of ten years and I arrived on the topic while chatting late one summer night. She looked up the animal to prove to me they existed and there they were swimming near floating ice caps in the light blue ocean. A whole page of image results appeared and I couldn’t help but laugh. I was so surprised I logged onto my Twitter account to inform my followers on August 17, 2013: “Narwhals are real.” (Thank you, @ryanosterloh, for favoring that tweet—apparently all of my other followers knew narwhals were real.)
But how was this so? How did everyone except @ryanosterloh and me know that these animals existed and were not fictional? It was a reverse Santa Claus moment. Instead of discovering something was fake, I was discovering something was real. And what was real then became questionable.
It took twenty-three years of life until I learned that my family was utterly flawed. I was raised in a God-fearing home with parents who believed in principles of faith, love, honesty, and service. The environment of our home reflected these beliefs and I assumed the same was for my parents and their siblings.
My mom grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as the youngest of seven children who all have a Chicago accent. My mom moved to Utah for college, met and married my dad and decided to settle there. Although not as thick as her siblings, my mom still pronounces words with a long “O” sound like a hard “A.”
“Want to go to Castco (Costco) to get a hat dag (hot dog) or a new pair of sacks (socks) before going back to callege (college)?”
Most of my mom’s siblings remained in Chicago and we’ll occasionally get together when they’re in town. They send us Christmas cards showing pictures of smiling faces and a short list of their successes this year. Other than that our interactions are limited with those in the Midwest.
Last summer, at the end of my junior year of college, I got an internship in the heart of Chicago. Excited to connect with my relatives there, I asked my mom about her side of the family. Apparently, a lot happened about twenty years ago. My uncle Ben’s first wife cheated on him and they divorced. My uncle Jim was excommunicated from the church, and my cousin Sarah got pregnant and had a baby while in high school.
So as I write this, I wonder what else exists that I don’t know about. I brought the question to Google and typed what don’t I know about into the search bar. Even Google doesn’t know what I don’t know about. I adjusted my search to that can’t be real and the search results produced, “WTF? That Can’t be Real—Damn” which I avoided clicking on in fear of viewing unwanted content. I changed my search to I didn’t know that and was pleased to find a Buzzfeed list of “62 Amazing Facts You Probably Didn’t Know That Will Blow Your Mind.” Number 16: “Once Charlie Chaplin entered a contest for ‘Charlie Chaplin look-alikes’ and he came in third.” I certainly didn’t know that and it looks like the judges didn’t know much either.
It took me until I had my first child to know what love really was. I thought I knew what love was when I married my husband. We met while studying abroad in Italy and it was love at first sight. I came home six months later from Europe and was engaged. My mother thrilled and my father displeased.
The wedding was perfect and shortly thereafter my husband and I found out we were pregnant. It just so happened that my mother got pregnant at the same time and we both craved food and suffered from hot flashes. My mother was first to go into labor and the whole family rushed her to the hospital. While we were at the hospital I began to go into labor. We had our babies on the very same day.
The nurse placed my baby in my arms and said, “It’s perfect.” At that point I knew that life wasn’t going to get much better than this. I knew what love was. I also knew I had just spent four hours watching Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride Two back-to-back.
So no, this didn’t happen to me. But it happened to Annie Banks—the character in Father of the Bride. This movie tells me that babies make us capable of loving in degrees you never thought possible. Annie Banks didn’t anticipate this newfound degree of love. She didn’t understand until she was experiencing it in the moment. All this love was successfully portrayed with the soft lens filter and music playing in the background.
It’s not just the movies that have told me what love is. My own mother, in real life, told me that when she had her first child she thought, “I could never love anything more.” She thought she loved baseball, she thought she loved her slick personality, she thought she loved her life just fine until she had a child. Then she knew what she loved and nothing exceeded that.
I thought I knew what love was. I thought I knew when my parents regularly drove an hour to soccer practice so I could play on the best team in the state. It wasn’t an investment. I didn’t go on to play college ball, but they were happy to see me doing my best and being happy.
I thought I knew what love was when I took a hike in the mountains last summer. The Rocky Mountains were jagged with rock. The wildflowers bloomed as August arrived. “God made this place for me because he loves me,” I thought, “and what a great job he did.”
But then maybe I don’t know what true love really is.
Lisa Dickson Young recently graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah with a degree in Advertising and a minor in English. She enjoys the outdoors, efficiency, and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter @lisaischirping.
"Unknown" is Lisa's first published essay.