I just cried again.
It's been happening a lot lately. I cried when Barbara was locked in the basement of a party store for weeks, with only a dummy clown as a companion. I cried when Chris Hughes discovered he needed a heart transplant after contracting a virus in Africa. Dr. Reid Oliver stepped in to help but got hit by a train on his way to pick up Chris's donor heart. He died, but not before bequeathing his heart to Chris. In a word, sobfest.
While my heart has gone out to Barbara, Chris, and Reid, I'm mostly shedding tears because I have to say goodbye forever to all the residents of Oakdale. And it's not because I'm moving out of town. My town is moving out on me.
As the World Turns ended today. Big deal, right? It's a daytime soap, a dinosaur in today's snappy world of social media, reality TV, and the next big thing. Some might think it's a miracle that it's lasted this long. 54 years on the air is pretty amazing, but I don't care about records (FYI: it ranks 12th on longest-running shows). Records aren't going to fill the void. As the World Turns has been a constant companion for 30 years, 75 percent of my life. It's served as babysitter, friend, family, mentor, entertainer.
When I started watching ATWT, I was just a pre-teen who lived in a podunk area of Michigan. My family was splitting up. I was starting at a new school and leaving all my friends behind. I was living in a shady area of town with my mom and an alcoholic antique dealer.
As you can probably guess, things were far from stable.
Every day, I'd come home and change out of my school uniform into sweats. I had a couple of hours to myself before I had to be on my toes and on guard. So I skipped town, running away to Oakdale, Illinois, which, while it was just around the lake from where I was growing up, might as well have been light years away. When I started watching, it was the 80s and the height of linebacker shoulder pads and Byzantine plots, a far cry from the late-night drunken rants and K-Mart fashion I was dealing with at home. But it wasn't the style or the nutjobs that first captivated me. It was the stories of star-crossed lovers that first won my heart.
Bad boy Steve Andropolous tracked Betsy (played by a fresh-faced and thin-lipped Meg Ryan) to Spain, waited out her marriage to Craig Montgomery, and finally sealed the deal in a traditional Greek ceremony. Of course she later divorced him when she found him rotting in a Greek jail for drug trafficking, but it was a fairy-tale romance until it wasn't. Lily and Holden have been on and off for 25 years but when they first met, she was the stuck-up heiress and he was her mom's hunky stable boy. Dude had a way with horses and it wasn't long before he had his way with Lily. Swoon. I was reading Harlequin romances around this time, which, combined with these stories of true love, fed into my adolescent fantasies and created unrealistic expectations of relationships. I wasn't dating or even flirting, just silently crushing on boys from behind my Coke-bottle glasses. And after a first disastrous go at French kissing at the homecoming dance, I thought there was a serious problem with me. My toes weren't curling, and I sure as hell wasn't riding off into the sunset.
Since I was a flop in the romance department, I turned my attention to my schoolwork and continued to long for travel, adventure and success beyond my wildest dreams. With the TV on, I studied for the SAT, applied to colleges and filled out scholarship applications while watching Duncan MacKecknie move his ancestral castle to Oakdale stone by stone, only to have James Stenbeck return from the dead and wander the halls dressed like a monk. This was about as different as you could get from my daily experience of secondhand smoke, twice-baked potatoes, and a Catholic high school (although Duncan would have appreciated my blackwatch plaid skirt, being Scottish and all).
Heading to large state school on a full scholarship, I felt awkward and out of place while my vivacious roommate made quick friends, knew how to apply all three shades in her eyeshadow compact and owned every frat party she went to. After the first semester, I registered for classes around the CBS daytime schedule and hunkered down in the South Quad lounge. While I thought I was invisible, others took notice. Before long, I was debating whether Seth should marry Frannie or give into his feelings for her long-lost twin Sabrina (both played by a fresh-faced Julianne Moore) with the football players who found their way into the lounge. ATWT gave me quirky conversational currency, and a whole lot more.
While I loved college, I couldn't wait to start my own adventures, become a kick-ass career woman, and build my empire. I read Working Woman magazine and studied the plucky scenes with Lucinda Walsh. The CEO of Walsh Enterprises, she was tricked by wily relatives out of her company. Undaunted, she dusted herself off and created Worldwide Industries. It wasn't Lucinda's specific business shenanigans I admired, it was her moxie. She would regularly go head to head with men, always remaining strong, powerful, and unbowed. She dulled her shine for no one. Born Mary Ellen Walters from Peoria, she reinvented herself as the formidable, elegant Lucinda, and gave me hope that I too could springboard from humble beginnings into a glorious, fancypants future.
It didn't exactly work out that way.
After graduation, I moved to Washington, DC and began a career in publishing, working on a variety of trade and association magazines. I didn't land the sexy job I had hoped for at Glamour or Mademoiselle, and I felt like a failure for not moving to New York. By this time, I had fallen in love, but Lily and Holden and other Oakdale couples had not shown me how to navigate a long-distance relationship. Instead of going out with my housemates, I'd sit on the couch, eating pasta, making jewelry, and watching a videotape of that day's episode. The soap sucked in my roommates upon occasion but even so, I suspect Liz, Karen, Hylah, Shari, Lucy, and Alix thought I was hella-lame (not to mention a TV hog). And I was. I passed time watching fictional characters with rich lives full of adventure and romance while my life stalled. I worked long hours, my love life consisted of a daily late-night call with my boyfriend, and I accumulated mad debt. A taped TV show full of familiar faces was a cheap and convenient way to comfort myself after a tiring day. Lucinda would definitely not approve.
Eventually, though, I got it together and my professional life became Oakdale-worthy. After DC, I moved to Seattle, Philadelphia, and back to Seattle. I quit my job as a publishing executive when I became an author. But there was more drama to come. After six-plus years, the long-distance relationship had ended, and I subsequently dated a variety of wildly unsuitable men; I kept panting after bad boy Dusty Donovans when I should have been seeking out the true blue Jack Snyders of the world.
I continue to struggle in various areas of my life, and through it all, ATWT has provided me an emotional landing pad. To wit: I had a bad January last year, with a breakup, loss of a pet, cancellation of a huge book project, and surgery all within an eight-day period. This would probably take up about ten minutes of an episode of ATWT, but I was gutted for months. I didn't want to think about my crap-ass life, so I watched as various Oakdalians played out my sad state. I cried empathetic tears when Noah and Luke broke up. I got pissed when Henry's book was published unbeknownst to him. (Shouldn't it be a bit harder? Weren't there any edits? Hello, fact-checking?) He wrote the book about little Johnny, who was undergoing a bone marrow transplant as I was popping post-surgery Percocet and recuperating on the couch. The show offered an outlet for my grief -- I thank Jesus (and the writers) that no pet in Oakdale died that month. That might have sent me over the edge... much like Ethan, who fell down a hole on the Snyder Farm.
I'm in a better place these days, but I continue to watch As the World Turns, often during my lunch break in my home office. After 30 years, I still get a kick out of the wackadoodle, sometimes cliché storylines (Reid's car stalled on the tracks in front of an incoming train? Really?). But the show also plucks my heartstrings. ATWT has always been about family and relationships -- two things that are crazy important to me -- and it still makes me cry like a little girl when two people finally find their way back to each other or lose a loved one or contract a deadly African virus right when the girl and the chief of staff job are within reach. Like Chris Hughes after his successful transplant, the show has heart, and now it's breaking mine. I'm dying a little inside, but I suspect I'll come back to life like James Stenbeck. The best way I can honor the loss of ATWT is to live more fully, embrace adventure, and love with abandon... and of course, avoid train crossings at all costs.
Jennifer Worick is the author or co-author of more than 25 books, including the just-published Beyond the Family Tree, and blogs at thingsiwanttopunchintheface.blogspot.com. Reader's Digest recently named her one of the four funniest bloggers in America.