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.