Lately it seems my daughter is the host of her own drive-time talk show whose aim is to make her on-air guest cry. Our conversations start happily, “How was your day? Who did you sit with at lunch? Did you play outside? You kept your undies dry! And without segue or commercial break she goes in with, “Your grandma died?”
“Yeah, she died,” I answer.
“She got sick, and old.”
“Sometimes when old people get sick, they die.”
“And she went to heaven?”
“Yeah, she went to heaven.”
“She was a good person.”
“Why she was a good person?”
“She loved a lot of people, and she was kind.”
“And you can’t see her?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, she’s not on Earth anymore.”
“Well Heaven isn’t on this Earth, it’s somewhere else you go… after you die.”
“You don’t need a car?”
“No, no cars in heaven.”
“No one drives in heaven.”
At this point, I’m shooting from the hip and recognize we’ve crossed form interview to interrogation.
According to all PBS commercials, life with a three-year-old was supposed to be one long well-edited clip of her on a rainy day in a yellow slicker chasing a litter of ducklings across a park, stopping to watch a butterfly land on a flower, or adorably walking around the house in a pair of my Jimmy Choos (Birkenstocks). No one admits the real “curiosity” phase is an unending series of fast balls thrown by a preschooler with a bionic arm who can only be lured away from the mound by the promise of sugar and a small British pig.
"No one admits the real “curiosity” phase is an unending series of fast balls thrown by a preschooler with a bionic arm who can only be lured away from the mound by the promise of sugar and a small British pig."
Fortunately, the conversation devolves into a subtle awareness (on both our parts) that I’m ill-equipped to handle the magnitude of the universe, and I flip on the Mickey Mouse theme song which curbs any further resurrection rubbernecking. For now.
Unfortunately, even the squeaky voice of a singing mouse can't drown out what follows. Cue, the mom guilt.
Well, I’m a shitty mom. I’m actually annoyed my child wants to learn. There's definitely something wrong with me. Do I need therapy? I should swing by the grocery store, we're running low on milk. Other parents are so much more patient. No, I should go home and read to her. What was that therapists name I found last time? Therapy is so expensive. I should turn the music off and just keep talking. I honestly cannot take another question. Why the fuck aren’t there cars in heaven?
This morning my toddler began her day with a tantrum. Over what? Milk. Specifically? How dare I put said milk back in the refrigerator after she fell asleep instead of leaving it to warm on her dresser overnight. My mistake. Twenty seconds later, we’re in a full-blown melt down and it’s not yet eight a.m. My wife and I went through our usual tactics, ignoring, bargaining, moaning, and yes, a door did slam. I was dressed with the bed made by the time I wandered down the hall with enough readiness to confront the dairy-free demon with its hooks in my daughter.
The summer before my senior year in High School I experienced my first panic attack. The feeling snuck up on me, slowly at first, like a tap on the shoulder from the grim reaper. I tried watching TV, opening windows, cooking, but as the hours passed, my breathe shortened, my mind clouded, and I couldn’t walk through the house unconvinced I wasn't about die. I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t want to be alone. I grabbed my keys and drove the ten minutes to my mom’s work, faked a smile with the receptionist, and headed for the break room. Between take-out sauce packets and cans of Slim-Fast I frantically scanned the fridge for something that would stop the shaking as I melted onto the tiled floor, where my mother found me, minutes later, spread eagle with my back to the crisper eating cubes of stolen cheese while her coworkers stepped kindly over my legs like psychotic roadkill. My mother quietly picked me up, walked me to her car, sat me in the passenger seat, knelt beside me, and like any good toddler who’d finally gotten their parents attention, I began to cry.
"...my mother found me, minutes later, spread eagle with my back to the crisper eating cubes of stolen cheese while her coworkers stepped kindly over my legs like psychotic roadkill."
I’m raising a Pisces. Which means every emotion mounts like a tidal wave at her back, and any resistance, desertion, or attempts to lure her ashore with reason or impatience will be met with the plunge of her triton into my hardwood floors. Without at least two cups of coffee, there’s no chance my wife dives in, so she heads below deck to prep breakfast while I lunge for the helm.
My father has a thousand sayings, most of which belong on t-shirts in gift shops where tourists buy keychains and moose pajamas. A favorite of mine is, “Be the Pier. Not the Ocean.” As I walk into her room, my daughter’s eyes are puffy, her hair is in a teased halo around her face, and snot, that was dripping from her nose, has been wiped onto her cheek. She is breathing fast, like a swell offshore. As soon as she sees me, she paddles into another set, and lets out a screaming cry.
Why is this happening? This can’t be about milk. I’m so over this. Don’t give in, she just wants to win. Ugghhhh, I’m leaving if she can’t get it together. Is she sick? This is such a power struggle. Maybe I should just go until she calms down. Her room is a mess. We’re going to be late for school. Should I frame that picture? I’m leaving the fucking milk in here overnight next time. Ok, she’s still crying. I’m done.
I walked out of her room.
She ran after me, crying louder, her voice bouncing with every step.
You’re making it worse. You know how to calm her. Be with her. Breathe with her. Calm her down. Be her mom. Be the pier.
I stopped in front of the laundry room, took a deep breathe, knelt down, and put my hand on her chest. I was quiet. I kept breathing, consciously, keeping myself calm as I imagined a white light illuminating her heart, pouring down through the crown of her skull, enveloping her body, and soaking her soul. I moved my hands from her heart to her head, to her belly, and back. I breathed. In and out. In and out. I held onto the image of the light and slowly, between tiny moans, felt her breathing steady, watched her tears dry, and within minutes, she was draped over my shoulder as I rubbed her back, swaying side to side like the gentle rocking of a happy sea.
The ocean was calm. The clouds separated. We walked downstairs and I lifted the blinds over the kitchen table where a small glass of milk sat next to her toast. The sun poured in. She ate the toast first.
There you go. See, you know what you’re doing.
Because you’re her mom.
Because you’re a good person, and you’re kind.
Because sometimes when people get old, they grow up.
Because there's no cars in heaven.