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.
Be ready for anything. Best case scenario: you are well-rested and patient, have a sense of humor and a full tank of gas, plenty of cash and Kleenex on hand, complete flexibility with your time, musical preferences, and volume tolerance, endless appetite for YouTube videos and Instagram feeds, a copy of Twilight, a portable charger, tasty, plentiful snacks, a working knowledge of 8th grade common core math concepts, endless sympathy and advice for tricky social and academic situations, and you don’t mind being completely ignored if none of the above is needed. Worst case scenario: you have a flask.
Acne, drama, self-doubt. Excessive mooning about. A variety of binges and very bad decisions.
I behaved irrationally, irresponsibly, disrespectfully, and the one I treated the worst was me.
Yet having a teenager may be even more terrifying.
Still plagued by acne and self-doubt, my lingering woes are compounded by close proximity to this raw lump of developing human–one who wears her disdain, depression, euphoria, and ill-founded bravado at the very surface. Nothing I can say or do will serve as salve. It is what it is–a tough row to hoe.
That means the station wagon we purchased in anticipation of her birth is already a teenager. Believe me, I can tell.
Here’s what’s good about the family truckster: it runs.
The trouble started a year or two after we bought it. The doofus replacing our cracked windshield re-mounted the rear-view mirror upside down. It took us a few months to figure out exactly what was wrong; I suppose that’s why we didn’t just call him back and make him fix it. Though it works, God help you if you try to adjust it. One touch and that thing will be swinging against the dash—leaving you to wonder how to get home without killing anyone. I’ve tried taping it up there, of course, but when the car heats up, the tape peels and dangles like streamers. Adding to the festive ambiance, the two pieces that were supposed to hold the mirror up are tucked in the side of the passenger door, making a little music with the random forks and pens when you open and close it.
Sadly, the mirror was just the beginning of a long, steady decline. Now, over a decade later, the dash and seats are scarred from endless bike and lumber hauling. A hairpin got caught in the cigarette lighter, shorting the system. Knobs were pried off by toddlers when I got tired of watching them destroy the house. The ashtray was kicked one too many times, leaving a gaping, crumb-filled hole between the front seats, and milk has dribbled from abandoned sippy cups into every nook and cranny.
Eyeing the disaster, a friend once mentioned that she kept her car clean by forbidding all food and drink. This confused me. “When do you eat breakfast?” I asked.
But certain issues are especially indicative of its teen years:
It’s sullen, sluggish, and difficult to steer. This vehicle would prefer to lounge at home at all times. When forced to move, it goes where it wants to–making it difficult to park, hurry, make a U-turn, and, of course, avoid disaster.
It needs constant refilling: gas, oil, and especially coolant.
It smells funny. Unlike my child, I am able to bathe it now and then, but for the past year and a half, coolant has been dripping onto the engine block and boiling away, releasing the noxious fumes into our choking faces. As the leak worsened, clouds started to pour through the air circulation system, a development which rendered the windows alarmingly and persistently foggy. (The spouse likes to squirt a bottle of water on the windshield first thing, which does clear it a bit–and might work well with the kid, too, now that I think about it.)
After the fourth unsuccessful trip to the garage, the mechanics gave us an ultimatum: pay two grand to have the entire system ripped out and replaced, or shell out a couple hundred bucks to bypass the whole climate control system. We opted for the latter. The first time, they put the hose in wrong which led to another issue:
It is unexpectedly soggy. Just as thirteen years of bottled emotions erupt in a lake of tears, we discovered about a gallon of chemistry had pooled on the floor of the passenger’s side. I have mopped and scrubbed, but it refuses to be clean or dry, so no one is allowed to place books or bags on the floor. And now that the hose has been properly installed…
It’s permanently unbalanced. Although the fan works, there’s no air conditioning or heat. When it’s hot outside, we’re trapped in a hair dryer; when it’s cold, the North wind blows.
What’s more, our car is dangerously volatile. The wagon has a new trick, which I unfortunately discovered a few days ago. The struts on the trunk gave out just as I was cheerfully stashing backpacks in there. Suddenly the trunk and my face got well acquainted. Not surprisingly, that has caused me the mother of all headaches. Note that the trunk doesn’t always collapse, so we are constantly, gingerly maneuvering around it–dreading the worst, and only slightly placated when it manages to stay open long enough for us to grab a bag without getting a black eye.
The spouse was on the freeway recently when the car in front dropped some large, vital piece onto the roadway. It was sucked up under our wagon, destroying two of the tires. Remarkably calm and clear-thinking under pressure, he managed to steer the car safely onto the shoulder. Later, he put his head in his hands. “Why did I do that?” he asked. “I had the perfect opportunity to steer right into the guard rail and get us a new car.”
He’s got a point. This kind of teenager will never go to college.
As I may have mentioned before, I do a boatload of driving.
In fact, I drive up and over one particular hill at least six times every day. Let’s not explore the reasons why. Suffice it to say that having two children in schools on opposite ends of the city can make a person do ridiculous things.
Over the past six months, I’ve developed a habit of pulling over and parking at the top of the hill. Maybe I’d feel a little embarrassed if it didn’t feel so dad-gum therapeutic.
It’s not the most spectacular view of San Francisco, but the sky is constantly changing there–like moods. I am always surprised by what I see.
Sometimes the clouds split and a ribbon of light rips across the horizon.
Sometimes I can see it raining one place, sunny in another.
And sometimes–like this morning–the hill is adrift in fog and I see nothing at all. I always look for a while anyway.
I might comb my hair or clean out my purse. I might eat breakfast, read a few pages, or listen to the inane commentary of morning talk shows.
Often I close my eyes and take ten breaths.
The neighbors must wonder about me–though I have taken to setting my alarm for seven minutes, so I don’t wallow indefinitely–but for that tiny envelope of time, there is nothing but the sky and me. It is strangely satisfying.
Getting lost in a dark basement full of dentists dressed like clowns
Being a disappointment to my parents
The Shining—never, ever read Stephen King books in grade school
Being tickled until I wet my pants
The Internal Revenue Service
College tuition for my kids
Being a disappointment to myself
Somehow stuck at 90 words today, but this note makes it 100.
I realize that was a total copout, but a) I’m human, and b) tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. I need to spend a little more time cooking, cleaning, and being grateful instead of tearing my hair out over ten words.