On taking care

“You should be careful with your bag,” Jessica says to me. “It’s heavy.”

“I will be, sweetie,” I tell her.

“And don’t poke yourself with that pen.”

“I’ll be careful,” I tell her, tucking the pen in the bag. Not comparing her to a helicopter parent or pointing out that I successfully managed all of these tasks for many many years before she was born.

“What are you going to eat for dinner while I’m at my dad’s house?”

“I have no idea,” I tell her.

“I will make you a menu.”

“Please don’t,” I say, before I can stop myself. Each week, we plan out a menu of dinners, looking in the cookbooks for the meals we will enjoy making and eating, typing the titles of the recipes into the computer, highlighting Monday in purple and Tuesday in blue. Then we make a list of all the things we need to get at the co-op. Then we make the meals from scratch, soaking beans overnight or mixing pasta dough by hand, and frankly it is exhausting.

“If we don’t make a menu, you will eat popcorn and cookies the entire time.”

“Maybe not the entire time,” I tell say. Occasionally I diversify into Pop Tarts.

“Mom.”

“Fine,” I say, rolling my eyes like I’m the teenager. “Make the menu.”

So she makes me a menu and carefully puts it on the refrigerator under the magnet with her picture on it.

“I will call you tomorrow,” she says. “I will ask, ‘What are you having for dinner, Jennifer?’” She doesn’t dare call me “mom” when she is feeling this fragile. And I know she feels fragile by how much she is mother-henning me.

I squint at the menu. “And I will say, ‘broccoli stir fry.’”

“You will be all right when I am gone.”

“I’ll miss you, pumpkin pie.” Sometimes she still lets me call her by that nickname. “But I’ll be all right.”

“You won’t cry.”

“I’ll be brave,” I promise her and give her a hug.

“Don’t get any tickets from the police.”

“They’re parking tickets, darlin’.”

She is not convinced. “When I am not here, you eat berry pie for breakfast. And you stay up until two o’clock in the morning.”

“Well, I’m not out carousing,” I feel the need to defend myself. “I’m usually trying to catch up on all my work.”

“And you work too much when I am gone.” She thinks working more than thirty-seven minutes a day is working too much. “There is no one to take care of you when I am not here.”

“I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time, darling girl.”

She nods. “You like taking care of yourself. You do not like to have someone to take care of you.”

“Well, I don’t mind when it’s you.”

“That’s because I am the best assistant. Ever.”

“That you are, girlfriend. That you are.”

On the complications of living

Someone I know has to meet the woman who destroyed her family and is now the stepmother to her children, and put on a smiling face to do it. Her ex wants her to stop in and say hello when she comes by to pick up the kids one day, and she said she knows it’s going to be hard. And it absolutely is going to be. When she told us, a bunch of friends chimed in that she needed to be sure she was on her turf when she did it, and that she was in a position of power, and that she only did it when she felt ready to do it, and she had to take care of herself, and I was the lone dissenting voice of or you could just, you know, go the fuck into the living room and meet the woman.

I got to meet my ex’s live-in partner one day while I was still wearing pajamas and hadn’t quite gotten around to brushing my teeth, so I figure fair warning would be a big improvement over that. But in the end it wasn’t ever going to be anything but a hard time for all of us. Fortunately, she’s a nice person and hey we’re all just trying to get to the happily ever after.

Jess: Mom. This is the happy ever after.

Me: It could use a little more happy.

Jess: Mom. You think happy is for those people, you know, that word I don’t like to say—

Me: Dumbasses who refuse to face reality.

Jess: So even if you were happy, you would not be happy.

Me:  . . .

Jess: But you always say I bring you joy. So maybe you should just focus on the joy.)

Life is complicated and we are never going to be ready for the hard parts or feel supported enough to get through them. We aren’t even going to feel strong. And we aren’t going to somehow achieve closure or healing for having done them; healing is not the result of actions but the result of acceptance and maybe—watch out, psychological heresy ahead—maybe you will never accept this. That your mother didn’t protect you from your father, or that your husband walked out on you and married his mistress, giving her the happily-ever-after that you wanted and which she destroyed, or that the universe maimed your child so badly she will never have a normal life.

We do some hard things because we have to. We do them for the sake of other people, not because the action will somehow accrue great good karma to us or that they will lead us to the warm earth of healing and peace. We do them because we are civilized human beings, and being a civilized human being means sometimes we do not let the bleeding show. We want our children to believe it’s okay to feel good in their new family, even if it cost us ours. And we do not demand that our children suffer as we do for the sins of other people, including our own.

Sometimes I think the greatest crime perpetrated against people in pain is the idea that they need to be healed of their suffering, that their suffering is somehow an affront to non-suffering people. She’s playing the victim again, we say scornfully. Oh my god, it’s been ten years since that happened! Why doesn’t she get over it! Time, we are certain, will lead to healing, and people are just being stubborn if it doesn’t.

People who suffer know a bad thing has happened. They’re not pretending it hasn’t. They know they can’t change that bad thing. They’re not pretending they can. But what we seem to be asking them to do is to say that the pain and unfairness are okay. But they’re not. The pain is painful. The unfairness is unjust. No, it is not okay.

And it is at this stubborn impasse that many of us reside. Because it will never be okay, what has happened. That does not mean that we don’t get on with our lives. It does not mean we don’t love again, or feel happiness (or joy, for those of us sporting a fine contempt for happiness). It doesn’t mean we don’t laugh or lift our faces to the sun.

It means that we don’t ever heal, because we can’t. Because no matter how much you badger us, we know that it is never going to be okay, what happened. What we are going to do is learn to live with it, although sometimes we don’t even manage that very well.

Here is how I could get over my suffering. I could stop caring what happens to Jessica. You tell me if you think that’s even possible.

On expressions I will never use again

I’m on the phone with a friend of mine who lives in New York, and she mentions that she ran into a novelist she knows who lives down the street from her—“It’s New York, after all”—and I say, “Yeah, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a writer.”

Jessica is listening to me and suddenly her whole body freezes.  

What did you just say?” she demands. She often participates in my phone conversations, so I hold the phone aside and say to her, “It’s just an expression.”

She insists: “Did you say swing a cat? 

“I said, ‘You can’t swing a cat,’ which you can’t. It just means—”

But she has already burst into tears. Yes, tears: big, huge, sobbing tears about my cruelty to cats.

“I think I’d better go,” I say to my friend, and hang up the phone. I turn to Jessica. “Sweetie . . . .”

But by now she has moved onto hiccupping sobs. “I cannot believe you would swing a cat!”

“It’s just an expression,” I try to explain. “It just means—”

“Do not swing cats anymore!” she says, near hysteria, and so I say, “Yes. I promise. I will never say that expression again. Ever.”

“Because there is no swinging of cats in this house,” she says firmly, still sniffling a little. 

“Yes. I mean, no. No swinging of cats. Got it.”

“You promise.” 

This is one promise that is easy to make. “Yes,” I say. “I will never swing a cat. Or even mention the swinging of cats.”

“Okay.”  

I hug her. “Is it okay if it rains cats and dogs?”

“That is ridiculous,” she says.

On the way we are made

“I hope the house is not on fire,” Jessica remarks, coming into the bedroom where I am folding laundry.

What?!?!!” I shriek.

“There,” she says, pointing. “That looks like a flame.”

It does, but it is simply a scrap of red metallic paper that has fetched up against the wall, probably leftover from a piece of Halloween candy.

“That’s just a piece of paper,” I say. I collect it and show it to her. “But thank you for giving me a heart attack.”

She considers. “You do not really mean thank you,” she says. “Because you do not want a heart attack.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Then you are being sarcastic,” she says, and here we are again, parsing my behavior and actions as if we were in the lab, and I an interesting specimen in a petri dish.

“Yes.” I am resigned to the microscope of Jessica’s attention.

“That is when you say the opposite of what you mean. Sarcastic.”

“Yes. Well, that is the meaning of irony. Sarcasm is using irony to make a point.”

“Were you mocking me?” she asks.

That is, in fact, a definition of sarcasm—intending to mock or give pain—but I say, “I would never mock you, darlin’. Mocking is unkind. I was just expressing how you startled me.”

“You do sometimes mock things.” She is looking at me with her clear eyes.

Yes, indeed, I do. Politicians, major world religions, people who should know better.

“Does that mean you are unkind?”

I look for some way to cheat her logic but there is none. “I guess so,” I say. “Sometimes.”

“Is it bad to be unkind?”

Not when I do it, I would like to say. “It’s human,” I hedge.

“That is your nature,” she decides, not letting me get away with such a massive generalization but forgiving me for my unkindness at the same time. “That is just the way you are made.”

“Maybe,” I say. I can’t really remember a time when I haven’t been a sarcastic person, mocking politicians. I am not sure that people are born sarcastic, but certainly life in my family shaped that tendency, and so you could reasonably say that I was made that way.

“I don’t think I am ever unkind,” she says.

She doesn’t say it proudly, or in a self-aggrandizing way. Just as a fact: there are twelve inches in a foot, the sofa is green. I am tempted to say do you remember the time I told you a student had sold her book and you said Mom, you used to do that, too, why doesn’t anyone want to buy your books anymore? That hurt. But on the other hand, it was not said with malice, or meant unkindly. It never occurred to her it would hurt my feelings. It was merely an observation, a question I have often asked myself.

“No,” I say slowly. “I don’t think you have ever been unkind. Not in any way you ever intended.”

She smiles in relief and I think what an amazing thing that is, to have never intended an unkindness, to have never struck out in anger. She has never said I hate you, Mom! or any of the other things children fling at  their parents in frustration. It would never occur to her to say things that she knows would cause pain. It is, literally, unthinkable.

She picks up her folded clothing to put in her dresser. “And no one has ever been unkind to me,” she says, and I think of all the times they have been, the cruelty and the slights, but she has never taken such attacks personally or cried over them or even remembered them; she has always believed that people simply fail in understanding. They do not know I was made that way, she says. She doesn’t ever perceive that they could intend to be cruel. It is a breathtaking naiveté or yet an unassailable confidence in herself.

“I guess that is lucky,” I say. What else am I going to say? People say and do unkind things to you but you never seem to notice. I have always thought it the wiser thing to see the world clearly, ugliness and all, and not let it defeat you. But she is not wrong; perhaps hers is the way of greater wisdom, to simply take no notice of malice or to ascribe it to ignorance. It is certainly more compassionate to think that people simply fail in understanding. Or maybe not compassionate at all. I think about coming up against the mountain of Jessica’s imperviousness and how I have never yet made an impression upon it. She reminds me of a Hindu god sometimes. Terrifying and brutal; tender and loving. Destructive and creative all in one breath. You love her and despair.

“Lucky.” She smiles. She loves that word. “We are both lucky girls. That is our nature. That is just how we are made.”

If we were made lucky, you would not be standing there missing half your brain, I do not say. If we were made lucky, I would not have these shadows under my eyes or this gray in my hair, or this ache in my heart. And also we would live in a much bigger house and drive a somewhat newer car.

But it is true that our lives, her life, could be much worse. A slip of a surgeon’s knife, a test ordered twelve hours too late, a will less strong—

To think even for a moment about losing her, this child who cannot even conceive of trying to hurt someone’s feelings, makes me gasp. Knowing her has stretched my worn, sarcastic soul open–painful, unwelcome, and with a certain amount of kicking and screaming. Yet how could I have known the joy of being her mother otherwise? In that moment I see that we were made lucky,  just not in any way I would have picked. (Greek sailors and money in the bank, in case the universe is listening this time.)

You may be right,” I say.

She smiles again. She is always right and she knows it. It just sometimes takes me a little longer to gain understanding. And she knows that, too, and always waits patiently for me to catch up.

Conversations with Jessica

I introduced Jess to the wonders of Mary Poppins (the movie) the other day. And here is how our conversation went:

 
Jess: This is such a good movie! Did you watch it on DVD when you were a kid?
Me: We didn’t have DVDs when I was a kid.
Jess: But you know all the songs!
Me: Well, I had the record.
Jess: What’s a record?

And this is how I know I am old.

On telling stories

You know, I try to give y’all helpful advice for living your creative life. I carefully craft action steps, things to do to help you in your creative work. And? And I get these gentle notes: “Well, it’s fine. Really. Really.  It’s just . . . they’re not Jessica stories.”

Do you realize how much time I spend staring at Jessica, trying to get a story from her? We’ll be sitting there on the sofa and she’ll be playing with a princess or two and she’ll look up. “What are you doing, Mom?”

“Nothing,” I will lie. Lie to my own daughter’s face. This is the extremity to which I have been pushed.

Then she’ll give me the Buddha smile. You know the one. She has seen my bullshit and she is calling me on it, only she is much too polite to say so out loud.

So I own up because I am trying to set a good example even when I don’t feel like it. “I’m looking for material.”

She slants her head, birdlike. This is so she can see me. She is like a friendly wren or a robin; not a starling because they are much too noisy. (“I’m like an eagle,” she’ll tell me as soon as she reads this. “Or a falcon!”)

“You are trying to write a story,” she says.

“Yes.”

“Will it be about me?”

“The best ones are.” 

She nods because she knows this is absolutely true. There was a time when I was good at writing other stories, but that was long ago.

“Where would you be without me?” she asks. This is one of her favorite questions and she asks it at least once a week. 

“I don’t know,” I say. “Writing stories that no one reads, I guess.”

“Well, I would read them,” she says loyally, and I forebear to point out that she couldn’t if she weren’t here, and I just say, “Thank you.” 

“You are welcome.” Then: “That is what I am supposed to say, isn’t that so?” Like a chic Frenchwoman learning the language.

“Yes, that’s what you say.” 

“I thought so. I would read your stories every day. Even if they were bad.”

“Even if they were very bad?” 

“Even if they were terrible,” she says.

“It’s a good thing I have you, then,” I say, thwarting logic, but she understands me perfectly. 

“Yes,” she says serenely. “Yes, it is.”