For homework, J is asked to find items around the house that are examples of “translucent, opaque, and transparent.” Panic arises as I start thinking about all the information he is eventually expected to acquire—and it feels like trying to imagine what is beyond space, and beyond that, and beyond that, etc. I take a deep breath and remind myself that his teachers know what they are doing. Maybe this worry is a memory of how I felt in school sometimes—that my learning was like Swiss cheese, memorizing to get good grades, but underneath was bunch of holes, making me feel like I never really understood anything at all. “Look mom!” he says, finding the objects he needs.
We are called in for J’s end-of-the-year first grade student conference. I awkwardly try to hang my purse and jacket around the miniature chair I am sitting on, then hurriedly give up, letting it all fall to the floor in a messy heap—because time is ticking. We are allocated a full twenty minutes until the next parents come tromping in, to hear as much as we can about our son’s life in this place where he spends most of his waking hours, hopefully becoming a citizen of the world. “His letter reversals are almost nonexistent!” His teachers beam. They show us his weekend log, where he writes things like, “This week end I selabated my brather’s berth day. He got a lego set with 1500 pezise. I bilt an ice casl. With his legos.” His teachers say he lights up during science and bring out his observation journal with his sketch of a caterpillar in the chrysalis phase. Upon seeing the drawing, we all fall silent for a moment—out of respect, his pencil lines so detailed and thoughtful, almost loving.
C’s preschool has Spring Break, a good reminder for some one-on-one time together. It is raining so I take him to an indoor playground across town. After finding the place, parking, walking several blocks, waiting in line, entering our information into their system, signing the waiver, paying, putting on the required socks, entering through the baby gate—he walks around solemnly, and any attempts I make to engage him with the toys he shakes his head no. I am surprised, but at this point, I am already exhausted, so I surrender—asking him if he would like to go home. He shakes his head no. We persevere and when he eventually agrees to play Air Hockey, something begins to loosen up inside him, and he cracks his first smile.
Then he tries out one of the indoor swings, but immediately falls and the seat cracks him hard in the face, causing his mouth to bleed. I hold him, wipe his tears, and find a staff member to help me clean him up and get some ice. Now he is unhappy again, but still, he shakes his head adamantly, when I ask if he wants to go home. When the bleeding stops, again we push forward. We find a room with a basketball hoop, and he grabs a nearby dodgeball. He starts shooting and retrieving the ball and a smile starts to peek its way through again. I watch, amazed, as that layer of heaviness starts to lift, and it is like a microscope coming into focus—his movements becoming sharper, more energized and colorful. The next hour and a half he plays uninhibited, jumping on the giant trampoline and crawling up the rock wall.
Later, when we are home, and he is napping, I think about this process that unfolded, of fear that holds us tightly sometimes, with that reality of the bleeding, and that there is no way to disentangle, to unknow what you know. And that not-knowing would be not-living either. So, the fear resides, like a dragon cozying up by the fireplace, until it is fought back, broken through—by things like Air Hockey or love.
When I was little, I was afraid of so many things. I hated the feel of people’s eyes on me, hot and blistering, like a blow torch. I remember a holiday gathering, when I was around J’s age, and the adults laughed because another kid I was introduced to, similar in age, stared open-mouthed at me, following me around the house as I tried, politely, to get away from him. Finally, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried while he sat outside the door, waiting for me. “Please stop staring at me,” I should have simply said.
But, at the time, I was also asking to be gawked at—I wore matching pants and shirt covered in rainbow-colored tie-dye, and a rainbow-colored hat to match, with a lime-green propeller on top that spun when I ran. I wore this outfit daily, obsessively, and this felt so comforting, like it was my fiery armor against the world. “Are you a Dead Head?” laughed most adults when they saw me. I smiled and said nothing, not understanding the reference. “Spiritual connectedness,” a therapist said to me once, when I mentioned this stage with the propeller hat. She nodded her head adamantly as she spoke, her long white hair making her seem especially wise and other-worldly. She gestured to the space above her and said, in a scratchy but firm voice, “Your crown chakra. That’s why witches wore those hats.”
I struggle with survival guilt—from some events in my childhood regarding a sibling—and it is like being immersed in another dimension of pain, pieces of yours and someone else’s. There is powerlessness at being unable to pull the hurting person out—confusion, and then the possible solutions—each one like a shiny Barbie doll still in its case, until the plastic comes off, and the family dog runs away with her and chews away at her feet until there is almost nothing left.
It comes in waves and at times, can be almost unbearable—making me sad, but now, after over twenty years, also mad. At everything. At the fucking universe—for allowing someone I love to be hurt in the first place, and in a way that does not seem receptive to healing—and for, year after year after year after year, dangling hope like an oxygen mask, and then ripping it out of our hands, again and again and again and again.
For me and my mom, because of all this pain, no matter how the universe stirs our current lives around, we are always mending, circling back, like little wayward magnets, finding each other underneath the refrigerator, occasionally walking, talking and crying. I understand her the best when I am cuddled up with C for bedtime and he tells me, “Mom, I love your heart.” In this moment, I can imagine how she still does it—her patience, love and forgiveness, insides breaking and then mending again—marching across fire after fire after fire, her bare feet blistering.
On a recent warm, Sunday afternoon, we shop together for the boys’ Easter baskets. “How about this?” She says, holding up a bird-feeder with colored paints for the kids to decorate. “Perfect!” I say. We gather up a collection of wicker baskets and jellybeans and books and bouncy balls and giggle at the odd things we come across in the toy store—a giant stuffed sloth, sushi kitchen magnets, and a rubbery, life-size cake that smells like strawberries.
I find myself in the stuffed animal section, debating whether to get the boys two very soft and cute, pink and white bunnies. “They already have so many stuffed animals,” I tell her, thinking out loud. “But,” I say, my voice softening, feeling a sudden, sweet sensation as my mind reaches backwards, somewhere, into the mist, “you always gave us bunnies for Easter.” She smiles as I add them to the cart.