There is a girl at the coffee shop with her mother. She is ten or eleven, and dressed in the way girls her age dress, with flip-flops on (it is a warm afternoon) and pink polish on her toes. She has a thick book under her arm, held casually in the way that makes me sure she is accustomed to carrying books under her arm, and I do what I always do, which is to crane my neck to see what she’s reading.
It happens to be Mockingjay, the third in the Hunger Games series of YA books. A few years ago the girls her age were all reading Twilight.
And it is in that moment that I am ambushed by a hard and lonesome ache, that fierce desire to have a normal child, to be the mother of a daughter for whom the pediatrician doesn’t scrawl obviously retarded across her H&P every single time, as if we might not know otherwise.
To not know what I know, to not have spent the last fourteen years in hospitals, to be like other people get to be. For one goddamned day. Just one.
Because, you know, I get so tired. Everything’s a fight, every goddamned thing, and if I am forced to explain why we have to answer people when they say hello to us at the grocery store one more time, I will lose my fucking mind. If I have to have one more conversation with a doctor who thinks my daughter is such a fascinating case, and wow, why didn’t someone diagnose that Chiari malformation a long time before now. If I have to refrain from hitting a jackass who mocks Jessica while I’m standing right there, because I’m supposed to rise above it all.
I reach my breaking point right there in the coffee shop. When I was younger, I would have done this in a spectacular way, and people would have known it for miles around, but not today. Today I just leave. I know I am fragile at the moment and I don’t really feel like bursting into tears in front of random strangers, so out I go, right into the path of a good friend and her family, her normal family, and I swear to zeus I would just kill myself now if I had an implement handy. I know my friend is not unscathed – you cannot get to be this age unharmed, and if you have somehow managed it, you are doing life wrong – and yet it is the last thing I need to see, on a day full of last straws, a happy, normal family. On most days it makes me smile, because on most days I am sane, but not today.
I make it home before I start to cry, but the crying doesn’t even help. I can’t work up any sort of righteous “why me?” because, I don’t know, why shouldn’t it be me? Who is entitled to let this cup pass by? I have never known.
So I don’t ask “why me?” anymore, I just wish sometimes that it wasn’t me, and yet I can’t even wallow in that very well, because it’s such a pointless endeavor, it’s like being upset that you weren’t born blonde, and in Malibu. It’s the kind of thing a six-year-old closes her eyes and makes a wish about before she blows out the candles, the last birthday she’ll ever have when she can still believe there might be a little magic left in the world.
So the crying doesn’t help the ache, but neither do any of the usual panaceas: you get what you get, it is what it is, at least you’re not married to Newt Gingrich, no one promised you a rose garden, you could be trying to do this in Basra.
Through the stupid, thankless tears – I used to be so much better at feeling sorry for myself – I see the tulips that Jessica got me for my birthday, or actually the tulips that I got me for my birthday, because Jessica insisted: Your favorite is purple but they only have yellow. And yellow tulips are better than no tulips. And anyway yellow always reminds you of sunshine, doesn’t it, Mama?
They are all things I have said to her, things she can remember the way she can’t remember to say hello to someone who sees her in the grocery store, and I think of what an odd little duck she is, and it is entirely possible that if she could remember about the people in the grocery store, she would forget about the flowers. And the flowers bring me more joy than any number of random acquaintances in the grocery store, and so maybe I do want to be me today, after all, and to hell with being normal. I suspect I’d suck at it anyway.