Daughter had a decent role in her school play. After the show, parents stopped me and gave me a very sincere look to indicate how marvelous and beautiful and lovely and amazing she was. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mom. Really, she was something special.) She gave her character a British accent, which she learned from Netflix binges of Dr. Who. On the day that I joined the other volunteer moms to clean up the costumes, a mom I don’t really know confessed that she was confused, she thought my daughter really was British, but she’d talked to me and I seemed quite American.
What’s funny about this is that I thought we were freaks because of my husband’s death, and we must be such a mystery to this small town. Now, my daughter has left everyone guessing, instead, about our Anglo origins. Let the latter be the odd thing people remember us for, and not the former.
What’s not funny is that after the final performance, and after leaving the building buoyed on a wave of accolades, she burst into tears. She cried in the car. She cried in the shower, while she tried to wash the layers and layers of hairspray out of her hair. I offered her ice cream and she cried before and after eating it. She cried while I tried to detangle her teased hair. As she turned into bed (my bed, natch), she said, “You have your sad days. Today is mine.”
And that’s pretty much how we roll here. People must assume that we’re doing great. Indeed, my son and my daughter and even I are accomplishing things. On paper, we’re fine, thriving, even. But few people know how hard this is for us–to roll out of bed, to win the math contest or the science olympiad event, or steal the show, or finish an article. No matter what we achieve, it doesn’t sit right. It’s as if, when we try and when we succeed, we’ve opened our hearts, and in that moment of openness, we’ve opened ourselves to pain, or to grief. It’s hard to do it, and once we do it, we find that deep well of sadness.
It’s hard to share this with relatives, who just want to be reassured that we’re doing great. It’s hard to explain these moments of fragility that only reveal themselves in our moments of strength. This may be why I’m so isolated. I don’t want to be a downer and always be grieving, but on the other hand, I don’t want people to rush to judgment that these accomplishments are indications that we’re past our grief. For the kids, the accomplishments spur the grief on. How do I explain that, when grandmothers just want to ooh and ah over the pictures I dutifully send on occasion?
A few weeks ago, my son won an event at the science olympiad. He donned his medal right away, and he kept it in on the car. On the way home, he was uncharacteristically chatty. It was charming, really. He was so darn proud. And then he saw daughter’s stash of herbal lozenges that she takes for car sickness, and he said, “You and Daddy always used to eat cough drops like they were candy.”
The car went silent.
Why did he say that?
She trusted her dad. If he offered her cough drops, she took the cough drop. Or maybe she was upset about something else. All I know is that she curled up in a ball in the back seat and was unresponsive. It was heartbreaking. He hit upon deep, deep pain in her little body.
What was I to do? My daughter was suffering. On the other hand, my son was uncharacteristically talking about his dad. Which child’s need should I choose?
Here’s how I responded–I pretty much did nothing. I murmured to son, “She is hurting,” to indicate that she was tender without silencing him. And then I drove the winding, hilly roads. I occasionally called back to her to let her know she was loved, but I didn’t intervene. This is what meditation has taught me. Don’t panic. Be present, but don’t try to solve every problem, especially such heavy problems as the one in front of me.
Eventually, something shifted. Son offered to share questions from the test he’d won at the science olympiad. One of the questions was about factorials–If there are 8 horses in a race, how many possible outcomes are there? He thought he’d reach out by using horses that she knew as examples. And here’s how it went:
Him: There was that horse from that Velvet movie…
Her: Pie. And it’s National Velvet
Him: And that racehorse. Aunt Margaret has a book about it.
HIm: And your horse, too! Daisy.
Her: His name is Eskimo
As he went on, mustering the names of horses, I peeked in the rearview mirror and saw a gleam in her eye. Her brother may be insensitive, he may win science olympiads, but he knows so little about the real world. She assumed her rank as the most well adjusted person in the household. And, also, the girl grasped factorials. She’s no dummy, that one.
Somehow the sadness faded and we all laugh good-naturedly at his social awkwardness and discussed factorials as we crossed county lines. We made it home and he hung his medal in the kitchen. He really was proud.