Space

We’re in the swing of things. I get the kids where they need to go. It all works if we are each prepared to give up something, sometimes, at a moment’s notice. I just can’t get everyone everywhere at once. Sometimes I can’t add one more thing to my day. Son misses a fencing lesson, daughter a hack (that’s an informal ride), me a yoga class. The kids mostly handle it with equanimity. Should they grouse, I’m mostly strong enough to withstand it. But for the most part, they’re engaged and succeeding and developing.

Last night, after taking a break from grading papers to fix dinner, then prep for class,  I popped down to the kitchen to load the dishwasher, called the kids to bring their lunchboxes in if they wanted their containers washed, scrubbed the pots, filled the dogs’ water and food bowls, cleared off the counters. As I left the kitchen, I passed the teenager, who muttered, “You’re always here.” That was not a compliment on my diligence. That was sheer effrontery, that I am always hanging around, in teenager’s way. The nerve of me, for cleaning, for being. I went upstairs and saw the light on in the storage closet in the hallway. I opened the door to turn off the light and found the younger child sitting in the closet, on top of the blankets, beneath the dresses and coats, reading a book. I quietly shut the door. Sometimes I think we’re really weird, but this may all be perfectly normal.

Some days I can go 16 hours. Others, I crawl into bed in the early afternoon to make sure I can get through the rest of the day.

Sometimes–usually when I’m driving–I want to cry. That usually means I’m tired.

Sometimes I feel tired. That can just mean that I’m dehydrated.

Sometimes I pick up my child from school and wonder how I can get in on one of those carpools. People just seem to connect and pick up their kid one day if they’ll pick up the other kid another day. How convenient! I never get called. I’ve stopped asking people, because I feel like a charity case. I need a carpool so much that I can’t reach out and ask for it. I sit in the car and watch the kids we know walk to cars, together.

I am feeling, once again, like I live on the outskirts of this town. I try to fit in. If a colleague asks me to lunch, I say, yes! Even when I’m busy, I show up for the lunch or coffee dates. I keep things light.

A mom asked me how I am and somehow I found myself sharing my ennui. “All I do is work and take care of these kids.” Oh! she felt like that when her kids were little. And it’s good to fill our days with activity! My heart sank. She compared her years as a stay-at-home mom with little kids, with a husband to provide for the family–with a husband, God damn it!–to my situation. What could I say to her? How can people understand? Does it matter if they do? There is no respite. I don’t mean the respite of time. I seize a few minutes here and there, to grab drinks with friends, to binge-watch Netflix. It’s the respite of peace that I lack, the respite of….settling in, the moments to kick back and enjoy all this, to ask someone to reach up and get that jar, please, to lie next to someone at night, to celebrate the accomplishments. There is none of that. These obligations are relentless, they are never fully met, there is never a moment to laugh about it, to enjoy this as a shared journey. There is nothing shared. There is only the relentless slog to get these kids into a good college and on their way in this world. Then there is just emptiness ahead for me.

I try, but most days, I hate it here. I want to escape from here and start over. I’ve discussed this. I’m not going to leave.  And it might not be here that is the problem, obviously.

So I find little avenues of escape.

My modest little runs open up so much space. Even though each run is an obligation to stay fit and healthy, it feels like an escape, an outlet from the rest of this.

I spent my most recent Saturday night, solo, as usual, literally cleaning out my dresser drawers. As I cleared out summer clothes to make room for fall, I culled and made a pile. But instead of making it a “donate” pile, I just threw the clothes away. Some of them were old and a little ratty, loved and well-worn by me but not special to anyone else. As I tossed those in a “throw-away” bag, I just kept adding to it–shirts I had when I lived in New York City? In the trash! Clothes that had followed me around the country, so well made, back in the day, that they’ve stood up well? Trash! The memories are over. Trash, trash, trashed. And I made space in the drawers, with just the few things I need, folded and organized.

I made space in the basement for daughter’s horse accessories. The most likely place were the shelves where I’d shoved husband’s old cd’s, dvd’s, raw video footage, and cassette tapes. I always thought it would be neat to show the kids his PInk Floyd mixed tapes from his teenaged years. No longer. Trash! I can pull up Pink Floyd on Spotify if we want to walk down memory lane. Years of video editing material? Donate, or trash! I kept a few, but the “keep” pile is considerably smaller. And now there’s plenty of space for daughter’s saddle conditioner and show sheen and other equine necessaries, proudly stored and displayed on her very own shelf.

I leap into the space when I can find it, to extend this world just a little, to get a glimpse of what it feels like not to be here, like this. In the absence of liberation, this is some sort of exercise of freedom.

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Oh My God, It Was a Million Years Ago

At my retro grocery store, I spotted a popular professor of ecology carrying out out a 6-pack of beer, offered in cans from our local brewery. My first thought was “Of course. He’s doing his part to support local business!” The second thought was that Steve never knew that the local brewery is canning beer now.

Steve hasn’t seen daughter jump in a horse show. He hasn’t seen his son’s growth spurt. He hasn’t seen….these observations are all so trite. Of course he hasn’t. But these thoughts are doing important work. I am marking events that lay themselves down like geologic layers, on top of the world he was a part of, providing a foundation for this new world we inhabit.

We are, indeed, practicing a New Normal. The kids and I are settling into our work-school routine. I’ve gotten used to the driving (it’s no longer “The driving! Oy! All this Driving!). Now I just schedule my work around it. They’ve picked up a few extra chores. I’ve relaxed a little in trying to make everything perfect. As a result, things run well enough. The house is generally clean and orderly but not immaculate. I’ll cook super nutritious meals a few nights a week and let it go when they eat mac-n-cheese another night. Heck, those nights give me a break, which is healthy in a different way. I get to yoga sometimes, or I miss class so a kid can get to an activity. I do yoga on my own, which is not as good as class, but it’s all good enough. The kids are involved in activities they care about. They’re good at what they do. I’m running three days a week. I’ve cut back on my daily wine drinking. Sometimes I read novels.

Experienced grievers out there know what happens next; the healing only gives us the strength to endure the next bout of grief. Happily, this next bout took awhile, but it appeared, eventually. We had a few tortuous weeks in August. One of the kids was afflicted with such anxiety that it was unbearable for all of us. I won’t go into details, but trust me, it was hard, very hard. I was too tired to buck up and bear it. I reacted in horrible, ugly ways. When an incident would begin, I would even plead, “I’m tired. Please stop. Please…..” It wouldn’t stop. I had no resources to absorb it. I cried a lot. One time I broke a glass when I shut the dishwasher, in rage and despair. Once I cracked a bowl on the countertop as I cleaned the kitchen, railing against my powerlessness to put an end to this madness. These reactions filled me with self-loathing. That is not the way to help a child who deserves compassion. How am I ever supposed to improve my life or my children’s lives if I am so ugly inside? I’ve been trying so hard to heal, and those weeks just threw that all back in my face, taunting me, letting me know it will never get better, I will never get better.

I talked with a friend at the bakery one day about in the thick of all this. It started out chattily enough, but then I felt like I was going to burst into tears. I excused myself and dashed out. The tears were brought on because a thought passed through my head, as clear as day, and I couldn’t utter it aloud:

I keep waiting for someone to walk through our door and save us.

No one is coming.

No one ever came, but we suffered through this rough patch on our own, and then, one day, it wasn’t so bad. It helped that I checked in with same friend who had her own back-to-school adjustment with her teenager. She said f*ck three times before breakfast. (And she is a very sweet, kind, compassionate person.) The yelling between her and her teenager woke up her little ones, and the littlest sister came downstairs, in tears. That’s a sad story, but it suggested that my problem may be just standard teenager protocol. It’s so hard to parse it all out in our situation. A study reported on NPR showed it does absolutely no good to yell at a teenager. I already knew that, but I needed to read it. (It also didn’t hurt to read that a very high percentage of parents yell at their teenagers.)

At the beginning of this week, I erased our white board on the refrigerator and made a chart. The categories were: Son didn’t yell/Mom didn’t yell/daughter didn’t yell/son unloaded lunchbox after school/daughter unloaded lunchbox after school/no one flooded the countertop of the upstairs bathroom sink, etc. At the end of each day, I put a checkmark or a happy face. So cheesey. We never were a chart-type of household. But we’re not who we were, are we? One evening, daughter inadvertently triggered son at dinnertime. There was tension in the room. I deflected it. Son gave into it again. Tension again. I blurted out, “The chart! We’re almost at the end of the day! Remember the chart!” The teenager scoffed. But what do ya know, every single one of us has a happy face for not yelling, every day this week. What do ya know? We had a good week this week. What do I know? It is getting better.

This morning, the teenager was so relaxed and chatty and funny and regaled us with curious, brilliant stories.  My teenager is delightful. I have not ruined my teenager.

So we staggered our way through those dark weeks. We’re all the better for it, even if it involved the display of our worst selves to each other.

Through all of this, I did not stop my attempts to maintain a healthy mind and body. Running, kayaking, walking my big dog up hills in the neighborhood. And, hey, I went to a professional conference. (Major milestone for me, by the way!) That job that I considered last year? It’s posted again, and I met with someone from that program. I would like to apply for that job, this time around. And yet, last night, daughter let the dogs out, and she gasped. “What’s wrong?!” I asked. “Lynx!” she cried, as she slipped on her sandals and raced out the door. She had a visit from a roaming outdoor cat who occasionally loiters on our lawn. My daughter’s world is here, here in this town, and in this house. I owe it to her to stay. I suspect I’d be happier elsewhere, but this place is good enough. The pain of living here, the awkwardness of the people who treat me oddly is tempered by the dear and loyal friends, the decent job, the running routes, the farmers market, the kindnesses of people who love us. I could liberate myself elsewhere, but I may just have to practice the art of letting go here. And, seriously, here is not so bad.

When I returned from my conference at my home airport and headed toward the baggage claim, I didn’t want to cry. This was my third flight as a widow, and this was the first time I didn’t half-expect to find my husband and children waiting by the baggage claim. Instead, my carry-on and I proceeded right to the long-term parking shuttle, accustomed to the routine by now. He’ll never be waiting for me, but neither will those two little blond children. In a way, they’re never coming back either, not as the chubby little, big-eyed toddlers they were . Oh my God, it was a million years ago. There is so very much that has been layered over.