I once dated a guy who said that he liked the fact that my default mood was a positive, optimistic one, especially as compared to the go-to mood of his ex-girlfriend. I thought immediately two things: 1) this person does not know me and 2) his ex must be charming. Very soon after, he dumped me to marry his ex. Though at the time this may have been hurtful, I don’t know, I was busy stumbling about in a grey, spacious world, mourning the death of my mom: I’m sure I was mainly ticked-off at his timing. A year or so later, during a name-game conversation with a mutual acquaintance, I could not come up with the guy’s last name–couldn’t remember it for the life of me. So . . . an obvious slow-moving, unsubstantial bullet dodged.
I bring this up only because I was thinking about this “read” of me last night, at 3:30 in the morning, when happy, optimistic me was stewing about how quickly my heart was beating. Caroline had come into the bedroom, unable to sleep, so she climbed in with us, and at 3:30 in the morning, as blood carved new vessels throughout my chest, I thought, “Okay, how am I going to do this—die in the middle of the night—without Caroline realizing it?”
What’s His Name may have gotten it wrong, so many years ago, but so do a lot of us when we establish opinions about other people. Most figure this out eventually—that the person we see before us is more complicated than what he or she is presenting to us. What we may look like to the outside world is certainly not wholly who we are.
Sooner versus later, I want my children to understand this.
It’s not a stunningly original realization, I know, but as I get older, and actually, as I attempt to write fiction (I’m trying!), it’s comforting to keep this in mind and kind of fun for me when I either meet new people or try to create them on a page: we are complex characters; we hold within us contrasting qualities. We are likeable villains, heroes with idiosyncrasies, adventurers with phobias.
The trick is to spend enough time with people, to open our eyes, to breathe a bit when we are meeting each other for the first time, worrying less about what kind of an impression we are making, and focusing more on the individual in front of us, trying to get his or her story.
When Caroline has trouble sleeping at night, her fear is that she is the only person in the world who has trouble sleeping. It doesn’t help that her roommate, Lexi, falls asleep as easily as their dad. We joke about the old “Clap-On-Clap-Off” commercial. Or, if you’ve seen Rudolph as many times as I have, you’ll remember the scene when Rudolph, Hermie, and Cornelius are spending the night at the King’s Castle in the Land of the Misfit toys: Cornelius says, “Let’s get some Shut-Eye!” He pulls the string of the bedside light, and just as the room goes black, Hermie and he are snoring their happy way to Rapid Eye Movement. It’s as easy as flipping a switch for Lexi and Dave, but not so for Caroline. Or me.
Despite how I may appear, my go-to mood is without question Worry. There would be other colors on my pie-chart image: slice of yellow for happy, slice of green for energized, slice of blue for relaxed, slice of red for ticked-off. But, what color is worry? Some sort of a faded grey brown? Benjamin Moore might name it “Nausea”—that slice of Nausea would take up half the circle, especially of my Parenting Pie Chart.
Caroline, at age 8, at 10 pm on a Tuesday, is begging me to call 9-1-1 because she can’t sleep, she’s the only one in her entire class that doesn’t sleep at night, she’s lonely and fearful (and so exhausted) . . . observe the growing slice of Worry. We have our Wellness Visit on Wednesday, so we’ll be chatting with a doctor. We have a Grateful Journal—she writes in it every night. We are trying harder to stick to a routine and get ourselves to bed at the same time, early, every night. We are working on it. I am not despairing; I am hopeful. (But, I too, especially at night, can feel lost and fearful.) I know we, together, are going to figure out how to make her bed the safe, peaceful refuge it needs to be—the place of sweetest dreams.
I parent well. I put food on the table, and generally at dinner, there’s a protein involved. I clean clothes. I dust when necessary. I keep the girls on a schedule, they get to school, they play sports, they sing.
Sometimes, I impromptu-parent: a few nights ago, just before the start of the Father/Daughter Dance, we realized that Caroline did not have any dress shoes that fit her feet. She tried her sneakers; she tried her winter boots. She raided my closet and tried on two pairs of ballet flats. Nothing worked until she slid on my red converse sneakers and we tied them up tightly.
Caroline was skeptical: but, I could see in her eyes her mind clicking through the scenario of arriving at the dance dressed in just that way. She stood in front of my full-length mirror, looking at the contrasting image: a beautiful white-lace dress, the one her grandmother made her for her First Communion, and a pair of bright red, too-big Chuck Taylors.
Caroline is still the “new kid” at school. She frets about who she is as compared to everyone else. There’s a good chance that this is the reason why she frets about sleeping.
In front of that mirror, though, it took her only a minute. Then she smiled, let out a deep breath, said, “I’m scared!” and she busted out of my room, clumped down the stairs, and went to the dance with her dad and her sister.
Taylor Swift songs were well-represented. Limited disco, according to Dave.
They had a great time.