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.


  1. Thank you for this. I started reading and have barely been able to stop. I love your writing and I love Jessica.
    She embodies the Buddhist ideal of equanimity.
    I can't imagine being able to say that I have never been unkind.
    She is a gift and you are helping us receive that gift with your writing. Thank you.

  2. This is beautiful.
    A worn word, too often used for lack of anything more imaginative, but in this case I don't think there is anything better. You write beautifully about Jessica. Jessica sees beautifully. Her ongoing story is exquisitly beautiful in its sadness. Yes, you're lucky.

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