On thinking better thoughts

I am having a bad day. A hard day, following a hard week, in the middle of a hard month. We’re all having days like these, I’m sure, when our usual balms aren’t available. We can’t meet friends for drinks after work, or go to a movie, or run to the gym and punch a heavy bag. It is one of those days where everything is too hard, and nothing is working in a life that I am suddenly sure has never worked and will never work.

My daughter comes into my office to say it’s time for lunch, and asks, “Are you crying?”

To you and to me, the tears running down my face would be a big fat giveaway, but to my daughter the terrain of human emotion is a treacherous and unforgiving one. She has made so many mistakes about it in her life that now, at twenty-three, she always asks and never assumes. Perhaps I’m laughing. How would she know? She was born with a broken brain, although she never thinks of it that way. She is another thing I’ve screwed up: how could I have brought such a damaged child into the world? How hard could it be to have a healthy baby? It can’t be that hard. Everyone else I know has done it.

Her question makes me cry harder because I am so useless: I cannot fix her. There is nothing I can do, there has never been anything I can do.

She comes all the way into the room and says, “Would you like a hug?”

No one will ever accuse her of giving unwanted touches. I wipe my tears away with the heels of my hands.

“Yes,” I say. “I would like a hug.”

She puts her arms around me, a little awkwardly, as if unsure how to do it, as if I have not hugged her ten times a day for all of her life, a number she considers excessive by about nine.

She is an inch taller than I am, thinner, and her shoulder is a little bony but I rest my head against it anyway.

“Do you want me to protect you?” she asks.

For a moment I don’t know what she means. And then a flood of thoughts: impatient, I don’t need rescuing, why would you think that? and guilty, I’m supposed to protect you and I can’t even keep my own mess from spilling onto you and a thousand more, a whirlwind of recrimination and remorse.

I cry harder. It is impossible to dig any kind of answer out of the whirlwind. I say, “What do you mean?”

She pats my hair, which she hasn’t touched since I colored it last week. She liked it better when it sparkled with gray. But now she pats it, in imitation of a thing I have done when comforting her, and says, “Protect you from your brain. From your thoughts that say it is terrible and it will always be terrible.”

I try to get a grip and say, “It’s not your job to fix me, darlin’.”

She says, “It is not terrible, Jennifer.”

She uses my given name whenever she is on the rough terrain of human emotion; for me to be Mom would make her feel even more vulnerable, I think.

She says, “Your brain is lying to you and you should stop believing it. I will tell you some better thoughts to think. You always find a way. That is a better thought. It is what you always say to me, you say, ‘I will always find a way.’ And you do.”

This catches me so by surprise that I actually laugh. “I suppose I do.”

She releases me and steps back. “It is a nice day and the sun is shining. That is your favorite thing. You should think about the sun shining. We should go sit in the sun.”

She leads the way, and lifts her face up to the sky. “Also, another good thought. You have me, and that is a very lucky thing.”