I asked you once, twice, maybe a hundred times to teach me how to skip stones because—like the stick shift and softball and butterfly stroke—I never seemed to master the stance and feel, the order and ease with which you unfurl your hand and let it fly, each and every time erecting a bridge from here to halfway across the Pacific, yet no matter how patiently you loop your arms behind me and coach my grip, swinging my limbs just so, my stones fall from the sky like rocks.
I miss being able to be sick. Not being sick; that’s different. I get sick all the time.
But as a child, I could lie in bed all day while someone brought me soup, ginger ale, and Vick’s VapoRub. If home alone, I’d make a nest of afghans and crunch through long tubes of Saltines while watching the channel of my choice. As the youngest, that was a rare and relished opportunity. I could read books, write in a journal, or just lie there, thinking and dreaming. I do occasionally lie around and think as an adult, but only in the middle of the night–accompanied by the cold sweats.
These days, there is no binge-watching of Law & Order. Being sick means doing the usual crap while feeling terrible. It involves large quantities of DayQuil or ibuprofen–whatever might mask the problem at hand. It involves staring helplessly at the computer monitor, willing it to make sense to my throbbing medicine head, praying that my fingers are typing a grant proposal and not a cry for help. It includes packing lunches, grocery shopping, and–worst of all–driving carpools while pretending to be goddamned cheerful. Plus, maybe the teeniest, tiniest nugget of growing resentment.
Two days before the end of my vacation last year, I tore a calf muscle frolicking on the beach. I felt it snap as I jumped off a rock–realizing before I landed that my future held frozen peas and painkillers instead of the planned hikes and swimming. Here’s where we were:
But instead of enjoying the trip of a lifetime, I hobbled painfully through a blur of family obligations and endless airports, ecstatically relieved when we arrived home. I had forgotten that a relaxed convalescence was out of the question.
To add to the adventure, the kids started vomiting as soon as we got home, for which I blame the flight from Auckland. Unable to walk, I crawled up and down two flights of stairs, fetching rags and cleaners, cursing the fact that we had moved the laundry from the entry closet into the basement. You read that right: crawling.
I escaped briefly to a meeting, but returned soon with urgency. Grabbing a bucket and crawling up the stairs, I held my hair back and waited for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Miss 13 needed some attention. Her first day back at school had been tumultuous; she needed to debrief and hear some empathetic mom-isms.
Unable to hear over my own dry heaves, I had to keep asking her to repeat herself, and due to the aforementioned injury, I couldn’t kneel. I struggled to find a position which allowed me to hang properly over the side of the bucket while pretending to listen. I didn’t want to throw my back out while throwing up–again. This was absurd. Can’t I even focus on my own needs under these circumstances? But the girl did not stop talking until steaming jets flared repeatedly, at which point she just looked annoyed before retreating to her room in a huff.
Though my heart will break when my girls head to college–and though I will mourn their departure like the end of the world–I will embrace ordinary illness as a long-lost friend. I will take to the couch with a remote and a relish unseen since falling in love.
Nestled between a bout of off-season flu and an eight-day existential crisis, the scheduling gods aligned for one foggy day of freedom. I decided to spend it weaving amongst the clumps of rancid porta-potties and artisanal taco trucks we call a music festival.
Defying all common sense, I brought my 12-year-old along for the ride. My stomach bucked and bobbed along the snaking entrance lines, wondering at my foolishness. At last propelled through the narrow nozzle of security, my bladder was already at maximum capacity, my bag dragging at one shoulder to counterbalance forty pounds of water and snacks. Must. Not. Complain. My job was to have a friggin’ awesome time, and to make sure it was contagious. Otherwise, why were we here?
As expected, the park was chock full of twenty-nine-year-olds—the “new nineteen!”— popping molly and strolling in white spa robes, or dressed as Super Mario, or waving totems plastered with Bill Murray’s face. I looked at my own ensemble of ripped jeans, Vans, and flannel. What a bunch of overgrown children, I thought, eyeing my sensitive child anxiously and forcing a weak smile.
But Miss Twelve grabbed my hand and plowed into great clouds of marijuana, into 50,000 fans abuzz with bass and adrenaline, bumping and dragging me until the warm bodies became an impenetrable wall. There in the epicenter, one could sing along at full volume, shout and laugh and pogo with abandon, all without attracting attention or judgement. So we did.
At one point, half a dozen strangers hoisted a man in a wheelchair over their heads. He sang too, arms afloat, head thrown back, silhouetted by a blanket of bright fog. The crowd was delirious.
From punk-hip hop to jungle house to indie folk, throngs throbbed and bore us six miles back and forth through the urban forest, laced and lit with a thousand colored lights. Bare limbs stretched like Dementors’ arms, now bright pink, now glowing green. Spotlights pierced the fog, rays of rock band sun, and music shuddered through the shadows to reach our ringing ears, even as we stood in line for $6 gluten-free cupcakes. And for eight hours straight, there was no middle school drama, no teenage drinking, no job search, no overdue bills.
On the bus home, Miss Twelve asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if Outside Lands was every day?”
It has been three years since I wandered the hospital hallways, watching medical personnel fill out paperwork and answer calls, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
It is also one day short of another sort of anniversary: the discovery of a betrayal that left me so raw, I forgot to serve cupcakes for my youngest’s birthday. When I finally arrived–red and swollen–her teacher asked, “What happened to you?” There were no words.
Today is the anniversary of an anxiety attack I had while hosting the same child’s party several years later. To avoid making a scene, I hid in my closet as the guests arrived, giggling, downstairs—until I hyperventilated and passed out on top of my shoes.
I have witnessed life begin and end, graduated several times, ruined a relationship, lost a couple of pets and a friend. Even in years when nothing of much importance happens, early May is a time when issues of mortality, trust, achievement, love, and the great unknown hog pile me until I cry, “uncle.” It’s when my crust is thinnest.
For some reason–the gift of repression?–I’m blindsided each and every year. You’d think I’d have the foresight to write it on the calendar or something—though, what to call it?
This morning, the first thing I encountered was a short story which began: “I call my mom once a year, on the day she died.”
And that’s when I remembered–all at once, mid-way through my daily decaf. Life is short, people we love come, go, and disappoint, jobs are lost, goals may or may not be achieved. Somehow, it is possible to carry on despite this knowledge; that is what makes the sweet moments so very sweet, and the milestones achieved so precious. In the meantime, I will hold my loved ones close, listen more attentively, and stop worrying about things like jobs and dishes.
1:17 pm: “Despair.” With freedom still 118 minutes away, I looked longingly at the jellyfish in their watery castle. Nothing would have given me greater joy than to watch them float for the remainder of the afternoon. It behooved me to focus on the task at hand, however: herding hormonal preteens through the gift shop while keeping all breaking, licking, and stealing to a minimum.
I’ll start at the beginning.
9:00 – 10:30 am: “Mutual Tolerance.” To be honest, the first hour or two had not been terrible; everybody was reasonably focused and amenable back then. Students swarmed the exhibition halls, copying each other’s answers to worksheet questions while I relentlessly counted heads. Long ago, when I brought my kids here on a regular basis, I let the youngest wear her tap shoes. That way I could hear her footsteps and snag her before she disappeared into the kaleidoscopic crowds. But these kids were my size, with long legs and All-Stars and limited impulse control, so I wrangled to the best of my abilities.
10:45 am: “Loss.” Unable to locate either of the teachers or even the vast majority of the other students from our school, I was forced to swallow my pride and ask for assistance from museum personnel. They raised eyebrows in disdainful bewilderment, spoke agitatedly into headsets, and filed us in front of a packed auditorium–to the embarrassment of all currently in my charge. Note: Middle schoolers do not like to be embarrassed.
11:00 am: “Reprieve.” In the Planetarium, most of the tough kids dozed off, which was a nice turn of events. I guess it’s tiring to ride that pubescent roller coaster all day. Given a moment to relax and gather my thoughts, I might have gotten a few winks myself. Let’s call it meditating.
When I did manage to pay attention, I heard myself guffawing at the docent’s terrible jokes. How disappointing. What happens to humans when we reach middle age, anyway? And why isn’t there an exhibit at the Academy of Sciences that explains mid-life mysteries such as: how we hurt ourselves sleeping, or why pants become unbearably tight by 4 pm?
12:04 – 12:26 pm: “Lunch.” We desperately needed an airing out, but rain was dumping relentlessly. We sprawled on the floor of the cafeteria, where the noise level hovered around an impressive 140 decibels. I tried to keep the food fights to a minimum; failing that, pretended not to notice. Kids stole each other’s Cheetos, spilled a variety of contraband, and “group-chatted” with friends back at school, hooting and snorting until half-chewed food bits plastered their phones and friends. Several skirmishes were doused, and all cursing was ignored. Note: teachers occasionally adopt a Stepford Wife-type expression, perhaps because death and/or a partial frontal-lobotomy is necessary to avoid feeling pain in these circumstances. I adopted the same approach. It beats yelling.
12:46 pm: “Detonation.” All hell broke loose once we hit the touch pool. Due to some comment or action too small for the adult seismograph, Mia and Carmen were no longer speaking, so the other girls allied themselves accordingly. I had to choose: force all sides of the conflict to stay together and risk a full-on fight? Or give the aggrieved parties enough room to avoid bloodshed? Since only a few kids could torment sea stars at a time, I let my cranky quorum dissolve into disparate, dark caverns of tanks. I was lucky to know where five or six of them were at any given moment. The phones were out in force by then, no doubt broadcasting their social war to the larger middle school arena. I pretended not to notice—mostly so I could check my own and count the minutes to freedom.
2:10 – 2:29: “Education.” In the African Hall, I tried in vain to interest them in a replica of Lucy (the oldest human ancestor to walk upright) or in the adorable penguins that swam and pooped and watched the Nature Channel at the far end of the room. Instead, students gravitated to the diorama of stuffed dik-diks, doubling over as they read the explanatory signage loudly and repeatedly—a sign titled, “Dikdik Details,” and containing other unfortunate words and phrases such as: “sticky fluid.” Never mind that the fluid in question was produced by their under-eye glands. Hey, science experts! Couldn’t we have called this eye fluid tears, so that eleven-year-old boys might refrain from dry humping the nearby benches?
Oh, well. At least everyone temporarily forgot about World War III.
Note: the Dikdik is named for the alarm call it makes by blowing air through its nasal passages–often while lurching in a zig-zag pattern. I’m surprised they weren’t named “Drunken Idiots” or “Tween Boys.”
Another note: the Blue-Footed Booby is not on display at the Academy. I’d say I dodged a bullet there.
2:40 – 3:15 pm: “The Reemergence of Hope.” The schlep back to school was remarkably uneventful despite:
*a twenty-minute walk in the pouring rain
*100 wet, overstimulated sixth graders crammed onto a single city bus, and
*the fact that adults were outnumbered 25:1.
One of the teachers commented that this was a “great group of students” and that they were a “welcome relief” after last year’s cohort. I managed to maintain my new Stepford Wife expression while making a mental note not to volunteer for anything involving the current 7th graders.
3:15 pm and onward: “Dénouement.” I rewarded myself with vending machine coffee in a Styrofoam cup…and a big fat glass of wine with dinner.
What I learned: kids are great, but two is plenty. Also, we can’t possibly afford to pay our middle school teachers what they deserve.
Evie had been squirreling ones, fives, and the occasional twenty since 2014.
She tucked the shopping bag into the back of the closet, where it would hibernate behind her ratty wool coat for as long as seemed necessary. That way when—if–Hank noticed her wearing them, she could look bemused and say, “Of course not, dear. I got these ages ago.”
But from time to time, when he was otherwise occupied, she might wander off and worm a hand into the bag, the box, the crackling tissue, stroking the soft gray skin, imagining her foot cradled in such heaven.