Ready, Sec, Go!
Mommy, are you old or are you new?
Whoop and Daisy Doo!
Mommy: This oatmeal is very watery for some reason.
Caroline: Maybe you put too much water in it.
I’m a doctor, so I can put her shoes on.
I’m not listening because I love you.
Are gloves the ones with separate rooms for fingers?
Come on, let’s run and jiggle!
I’m trying to secret you.
Lexi, don’t listen to yourself; listen to Mommy.
A 64 box of crayons is a “stadium” and tears are “sad dots.”
Caroline at her 4-year “wellness” visit after having had four shots is screaming. Mommy tries to calm her: “That’s it, that’s it–just 4 shots. You’re 4 years old and you get 4 shots!” Caroline: “What’s going to happen when I’m 100?!”
I just want to say to God, thanks for drawing us.
After our trip to Quebec City: “Now the only castle I know that we have NOT been to is Dis-i-nee World.”
At breakfast, Caroline says, “Lexi, did I tell you the monsters were going to eat us today?” Lexi watches her half-interested, like she’s just looked up from reading the paper: “No.”
I spy something grey—Daddy’s hair.
You say ‘I love you’ and I’ll say ‘I love you, too’ because that’s my favorite line.
“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
This morning I left the dishes in the sink longer than usual, in order to set up the painting table and let the girls loose on unsuspecting construction paper. Sitting side-by-side wearing only princess underwear, Caroline and Lexi painted at least 15 pictures each. I had them title their pieces (“Pictures don’t have names!” said Caroline), and after the girls got into it, works of art, including “Doggy, Froggy, Turtle, Duck” and “Funny Daddy” by Lexi; “Beautiful Stone Wall” and “Bamba!” by Caroline, lay drying on all available counter space. Our house is the Barnes Collection: pictures hang on walls above sofas, under tables, climbing stairwells. Caroline can now dispense scotch tape, so no place is safe from masterpieces. I could go upstairs to vacuum a hallway (hypothetical here) and come down to three new displays: two on the sliding glass door and one taped just below the stove’s front, left burner.
The girls love painting. I love watching them love painting. This morning I stood staring at them from the kitchen sink, grateful and happy.
The fact that Painting Pictures Day at home coincided with Picture Day at preschool was not a surprise to me. I was fully aware that the girls needed to be especially clean and presentable by 12:30, when I would drop them off. A bright orange post-it with “Picture Day!!!” had been stuck to my desk all week, like one of Caroline’s paintings. I had chosen outfits the night before— pink and brown jumpers in coordinating colors because I had paid 5 extra dollars to get a sibling shot—but what I had not anticipated was mutiny. Picasso’s Blue Period ran from autumn 1902 to spring 1904; Caroline’s Rainbow Period has been going full-tilt since March; her palette not confined to paper. At 11:45, both girls’ bodies were clear of paint, but the brown and pink of Caroline’s potential outfit was not speaking to her as loudly as the rainbow of colors on her long-sleeved striped shirt. I began to panic. I jogged down two flights in search of storage bins, rummaging for a solid-colored jumper that would match. The green just a notch next to “puke” on the color scale, was the only jumper she’d allow, so instead, I insisted she pick out a pair of pants (“NOOOOOOOO!) or a skirt to match the rainbow shirt, since the dark blue jumper that would have looked great, had constricted her breathing upon impact—I saw ribs. The blue jumper removal tousled Caroline’s hair dramatically; then a voice rang from the adjacent room. It was Lexi: “I want my poople (purple) dress! I don’t want go school!” Her cherub song skipped and repeated like a record turning, needle over scratched vinyl again, and again, and again. My girls were going to Picture Day, damn it, and they were going to look cute. This was Guernica.
At 12:10, when Lexi caught on that I could not find the car keys, she pretended that she’d hidden them. I asked, “Where are they keys, love?”
She answered, “Upstairs.”
I looked all around the upstairs and asked, “WHERE ARE THE KEYS, LOVE!”
She answered, “Downstairs.”
After searching the house twice, I wised up, grabbed the extra set of keys, and then found the initial set in the backseat of the car, where I’d left them all night. By the time I pulled out of the driveway, I was exhausted from having chased Lexi around the kitchen, a smidge concerned that new neighbors might have called Social Services as I stuffed my sobbing 3-year-old into her car seat, and ticked-off that we had not one tissue in the car, since both girls’ cheeks were tear-streaked. Caroline wore her striped shirt with grey skirt and tights. Lexi wore her purple dress with pink cardigan. We were so late, I had to walk them into their respective classrooms. One perk of car-line drop-off is that fewer people notice that you are jittery, your hair is unkempt, and your voice is hoarse from yelling.
Minutes later, when I went to Safeway to buy milk, I also picked up a couple of four-color ballpoint pens and two spiral notebooks—blue for Lexi and red for Caroline. They’d been writing a lot in Mommy’s notebook, so I thought this might be a nice time to give them their own, since I was feeling generous and completely debilitated by gnawing guilt. I happened to stand in line behind a parent I had seen minutes before in Lexi’s classroom. I introduced myself to her. She looked at me as if she’d never before seen me and then her eyes registered and she said: “Oh, you’re the one who asked if they clean faces before pictures.”
“Oh, ha…yeah. We had a little trouble getting there today.”
“For an afternoon class?” She slid her fingers through what looked to have been recently brushed hair, and then she turned slightly towards the checkout. The conveyor belt moved; the placed divider, a line drawn, separated her toilet paper from my retractable pens.
I’ve swum in the Atlantic and dipped my toes into the Pacific on the same day. I’ve sat in a movie theater, seen a two-hour film, and as credits rolled, I’ve had to think about it: “Where am I? What state am I in—Pennsylvania? Virginia? Florida?” Just this morning, soft sun slowly gathered around the colors in our kitchen. I sat in pjs squeezing light and dark blue, purple, and orange into empty egg containers. The girls and I were fresh and blending. But in the earliest turn of the afternoon, I was suddenly rabid and sweaty, dumping folded turtlenecks from storage containers onto our basement floor. What state was I in and how did I get there on that very same day?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once she grows up.” Pablo Picasso
It wasn’t even one of those days. Today was an okay one: we hit the playground in the morning because it was below 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Then to the gym for a swim, and I was feeling good as triathlete-in-training. The girls and I went home for some PB& Js, some watermelon, some cheese crackers. They watched Barbie Fairytopia while I did laundry, but we read books before I popped in the movie, so I was feeling good as parent. I recruited Jordan to come over close to happy hour (it was approaching 5 p.m.) in order to help finish off the bucket of margaritas that’d been taking up space in the freezer—we accomplished that. Dave came home from work, and we chatted with friends in the courtyard. Not bad for a Monday. Then two things happened: The flat bread pizza we had for dinner started to feel a little wobbly in my stomach (or was it the tequila?), and when I went to stretch out a shrunken shirt I’d mistakenly put in the dryer, I pulled a back muscle so severely I felt it twinge and pop like a busted guitar string. I had to abandon family and go lie down on the floor upstairs, leaving Dave with the girls as they played Musketeers with pointy sticks they’d picked up from a tree flattened by a recent storm.
By 8:55 p.m. when a nice sounding, stuttery young guy called from some pseudo-research center under the guise of seeing what I knew of Maryland politics but really to get me to vote for his candidate, I was tuckered out. Lexi was still awake, whining, actually, from her crib; and when she does that, all things cute vanish and what is left is a crushing desire to scream at the top of my lungs, stifled only by the fact that we live in a townhouse and that noise would carry. By 9:10 p.m. when we got another call, this time from #555-000-0000, the jig was up, and even though this guy sounded even more sincere, even though he asked politely for me to answer just a few questions, even though I said, “No, really, it’s awfully late, please take me off the list,” even though he paused and then said, “Please, M’am,” I hung up on him.
Karma. Someone I don’t know is going to be mean to me tomorrow.
Today at the gym, my girls were running to the childcare room. I was preoccupied and didn’t really think about the fact that my girls may not seem as adorable to another mother who is arriving at the door of the childcare room at approximately the same time. I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I followed my girls into the room and left that mother to wait behind us…until I heard her laugh to herself in disbelief, a little grunt of surprise at my behavior. I quickly signed the girls in and apologized to her on the way out: “I wasn’t thinking,” I said, and she didn’t look at me.
Karma. I may get my ass kicked.
Last Saturday morning I left Dave with the girls so I could go to my favorite spin instructor’s class. Though I have few comparatives, this guy’s the best, I can tell. He motivates. Near the end when we’re all just bone tired, he’ll turn off the lights and yell stuff like, “Why are you here? Who are you riding for?” and I’ll want to sob. I’m physically exhausted but elated when I finish—at peace and ready for a shower and then maybe some ice cream. But my favorite spin instructor (we’ll call him “Bob”) wasn’t there last Saturday. There was a substitute. She was a lot of things, but her biggest problem was that she was not Bob. She also wore a visor and what looked to be a fanny pack. And she divided the room into three sections and made us pick team names and asked us excruciatingly detailed trivia questions about the Tour de France—none of which I knew, which didn’t bother me at all, but her voice did, a little, and her peppiness, and the fact that I was not getting any kind of a workout because she paused so often to flip through tiny pieces of paper to check facts or tally team points with a golf pencil. I was in a Seinfeld episode, and more than once, I bent over my bike far enough to bang my head against the bars. I said out loud to no one, “Is this really happening?” but no one heard me because by the end of class, half of Team USA, ¾ of Team Italy, and several riders from Team South Africa had walked out. I stayed because I felt sorry for her. I also stayed because I knew I’d have something to write about.
I stayed a while in the locker room afterwards because I bumped into a friend and we got to talking about spin instructors, about the greatness of Bob, and of course about the sub. My friend had taken her class earlier in the week, so we were chuckling about the intensity level of the class—how afterwards we felt like we’d gotten off a couch and walked slowly to a refrigerator. Then a moment came when I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a visor. My friend was stuck, literally, half-dressed, but I was fully clothed, and what I did was—I ran. I darted into a bathroom stall like there were hot coals beneath me. I stood facing the toilet, grabbed a piece of toilet paper and rubbed it against my nose, as if to convince myself that I had a purpose for being there, and then I forced myself out of the stall and back onto the hot coals, sputtering something to the smiling visor about answering every question with “Lance Armstrong,” as if I’d never left the conversation. Somehow, at some point, I left the locker room. The drive home was awkward: I was the only one in the car, but I gave myself a talking-to. I mean, the poor sub was doing her best. And what if my friend had actually been in danger? My knee-jerk reaction was to flee. Is that how I would handle things in front of my children? What kind of a person was I?
Karma. In my next life I will be a red-lipped batfish.
Except maybe not. The pimply kid working the deli counter at the supermarket sliced the Lebanon bologna paper thin the other day, but I didn’t complain. He was new at the job, nervous and chatty. Also, I was “live-chatting” with Sankrishna at Snapfish a few nights ago, feeling like I’d really found someone I could count on because we’d gone back and forth at least three times in 30 minutes about an issue with my checkout cart. I had only run downstairs to make a cup of tea and check the Phillies’ score, but when I arrived back at the computer to find that he had signed off because he “hadn’t heard from me” in a while, I didn’t collapse in despair. He was gone, but I understood. He’d found someone else; it was time for him to move on.
People are decent, I do believe it—that guy at Safeway who looked into my cart and said, “Holy Vegetable!” That woman at Starbucks who said I looked good in red. I don’t have a lot of adult interaction these days, so why not make eye-contact with the cashier at Target and ask him about that elbow tattoo? Why not talk the little sports I know with the pretzel guy in front of Home Depot? And why not forgive folks for their bad days. Even if it’s not of those days, we all could use a little forgiving.
These days, when Caroline says, “Mommy, I have to go potty,” what Lexi does is drop whatever she is doing, shout “No! No!” and tear into the direction of our only downstairs bathroom. Mind you, Lexi is not really potty-trained. She will take off her diaper, sit herself down for hours, shed toilet paper into the bowl, flush, wash hands and dry, but she hardly ever goes. Going to the bathroom is all about timing for Lexi, all about when it’s least convenient for those around her—just before naptime, just before leaving to drive her sister to school, long after bed time, and right when Caroline announces that she needs to use the potty.
“Lexi, why do you do this?” My outside voice cried this morning as Lexi hurled herself by her sister, slicing herself between me and the Archie Bunker chair. Caroline had been slowly moving off of the couch, when I saw her sit back to patiently wait her turn. She said, “Maybe God painted her this way?”
Yes. Caroline at age 4 has more poetry and logic than I ever dared to dream of having. Poor thing went to the doctor last month to check vision, hearing, and to get the appropriate vaccines. When two nurses entered wearing gloves, bearing needles, it was all a little too James-Bondy the way they slid into the room in clandestine fashion, and I, in cahoots, felt awful about it. Caroline’s eyes widened and she started to scream. Afterwards I was babbling away trying to calm her, and I said, “That’s it, that’s it–just 4 shots. You’re 4 years old and you get 4 shots!” Without any hesitation she responded: “What’s going to happen when I’m 100?!”
During all of the snow this winter, we missed one then another day of gymnastics. The first week I said we could go to a make-up class. The next week, I said we were going to miss again and Caroline said, “It’s okay; we can go to the lipstick class.”
She sat at her art table flipping a sticker around and around then asked me, “Do you know what this square is doing?” “What?” I answered. “Trying to be a diamond.”
Eating an apple she said, “Mommy, look—I made a footprint with my teeth!”
We’re not homebodies; we’re “little inside butts.” It’s not a graveyard, but a “garden of stone.”
The girls were sitting on the couch and Caroline leaned over to hug her sister: “You’re so expensive, Lexi!” Once she advised, “Lexi, don’t listen to yourself; listen to Mommy.”
Just a few mornings ago, we were all a bit blind and groggy. I was feeling around for my coffee mug as the girls sat at the kitchen table. It’s always quiet when I first get food in front of them. (In fact, at a recent birthday party, I mused about how peaceful our house would be if around-the-clock we fed the girls cake and ice cream.) Lexi’s face was still red from lying on it, hair disheveled. She was crouch-sitting on account of a recently scraped knee. Caroline was at her own seat, back to me, and I had full view of Lexi’s crazy-cute profile. Caroline said calmly, “Hey, Lexi, did I tell you the monsters were going to eat us today?” Lexi looked at her, blank-faced, un-phased, like a dad looking up from the sports page, and all she said was: “No.”
These days turn quickly. My eyes are heavy at 10:45 pm, and each room upstairs holds a laundry basket brimming with dirty clothes. There is a pile of old electronics on my basement floor, waiting for recycling, next to a pile of children’s clothing waiting for consigning. My saintly friend took it upon herself to complete my wedding album—a project now five and ½ years in the making—because I confessed to her that I’d organized the photos but never managed to get them in a book. Idling in cyber-Snapfish-space is a year’s worth of backlogged pictures of the girls. Thanks to book club, I’m reading on occasion. Thanks to friends and 24 Hour Fitness, I’m sane . . . with sore muscles.
I spend half a Sunday planning a menu, writing a shopping list, skipping from store to store, but it seems by Thursday, berries have gone bad and all that’s left is applesauce. Friday is always pizza night.
I keep a journal for each of my girls, and when they were even younger than they are now, I wrote to them often. I’ve been meaning to write to Caroline about her Princess and Pirate birthday party for exactly 76 days.
When I was younger, single, teaching high-schoolers, waiting tables, waiting for things to come, the impermanence of the days was obvious (but also a little impossible). There was always a place to go—a road ahead—a something to do beyond what I was doing at the time. Now, impermanence is an annoyance, a song I can’t get out of my head, the devil on one side, tapping me on the shoulder, snickering in my ear. I know they’re only young for so long. Do you think I can’t see how far Lexi’s legs stretch down from the baby swing? Do you think I can’t hear Caroline one day say “puddle” when she, each day before, had always said “pubble”?
When I get antsy about not getting something done, I step back and think about what I have done: I’ve spent some time with Caroline and Lexi. These days turn so quickly, I thought to myself tonight as I snuck outside in my pajamas to close the car windows. Their room was dark above me, shades drawn, and I couldn’t wait to get back inside, just to share the house with them again.
Caroline once while eating toast and jelly said, “I used to remember that I had this before.”
Caroline once told me: “You love us better than purple.” Yes I do.
“Caroline, do you want strawberry or blueberry yogurt?”
“I would like strawberry yogurt and blueberry yogurt, please.”
My pediatrician suggested that I give my kids choices. Ask them if they want to leave the playground in two minutes or five—they’ll feel empowered, and I can take off whenever I like because they really don’t understand the concept of time. When someone wants to dress herself, give her options I can tolerate, and then let her make the call. She is wearing polka-dot leggings with a striped shirt, but at least she’s not naked and I can get to the gymnastics class once this session without missing the introductory bubble song. I have gotten out of a few jams by giving my girls choices, but sometimes, when I am at the supermarket negotiating for five more minutes of solid behavior, promising fruit snacks, I think with dismay that I am that mom, the one in the supermarket promising fruit snacks. Sure, my parents gave us choices, but the list was limited: You hurl a basketball through a pane of glass as your brother stands on the other side, pressing his face against the window–Belt or bare hand? You curse–Irish Spring or Cashmere Bouquet? Clean your room or get locked up in it for a week and half?
Choices. I once went on a research-vacation-adventure to British Columbia. I was teaching at a school where the administration encouraged us to spend summers broadening ourselves, in or out of our subject matter, so I played scientist, studying the migrating patterns of the grey whales. I was in a gorgeous part of the world and saw numerous whales, but I desperately wanted to see one breaching. One day out of the ten I was there, I was below the deck helping chef-up some chicken quesadillas when “Kate Moss,” one of the thinner whales, jumped high out of the water (this is second-hand storytelling), falling back on a beautiful angle, covering the observers with a wondrous wave. I heard the splash and gasps from below. It was one moment, one decision to sprinkle shredded cheddar on a sizzling tortilla. Talk about road less traveled: I was a three hour boat ride from a one hour puddle jump to Vancouver. I’d been living in a temperate rain forest: wearing knee-high rubber boots, forgoing showers, peeing from a makeshift toilet seat into a deep and narrow hole, sleeping solo in a tent, waking to the sound of sputtering whales idling by the shore. But I’d missed the breach, the big show.
Mary Anne Evans wrote, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” I read Adam Bede in college, and it just about killed me, but it’s likely I wouldn’t have read a thing by Mary Anne Evans if she hadn’t chosen the pen name George Eliot. She changed her name in order to be taken more seriously as a writer, among other reasons, and she did well by it. We choose, and often we grow. Ask Adam (friend-of-Eve…not Bede)—it is what sets us apart from the rest of Wild Kingdom. We can make bad decisions: James Cameron probably shouldn’t have worn his hair like that at the Oscars. But also we can make what we see to be our best decisions: switching from Sony to Canon, going on an Australian lifestyle retreat, buying a 2007Volkswagen Eos, placing a child in the Education Center in Little Elm Texas; adopting a vegan diet; surrendering to Christ; retiring to Mexico. Some of us are remembered for a particular decision. Chris Webber in the 1993 NCAA match-up against North Carolina, with seconds left on the clock, University of Michigan trailing by 2, called a time-out his team didn’t have. North Carolina hit two free throws. Webber’s team lost the game, and basketball fans remember his mistake—not the 23 points and 11 rebounds he had in that same game—like political junkies remember Harold Dean’s scream in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Most of us, though, do what we do, making decisions, living the consequences, without the world remembering, and often, without even remembering ourselves. I have no earthly idea what I made for dinner last Tuesday.
I do remember going to the gym last Friday. It was one of the best decisions I could have made because it had been a long week. I swam. I lounged in the steam room, then the hot tub. I was on that Australian retreat, minus the Gold Coast and the cattle stations. It was an hour just for me, and by the end of the hour, I missed the girls and was ready to retrieve them from the childcare room. They were both leaning on primary-colored cushions watching a show when I arrived, and right after I called their names, Caroline came towards me with arms open, a big smile. Lexi stayed put. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me? I called her sweet little nickname in my sweet mommy voice, but again, no response. Not even a head turn. Maybe we should get her hearing checked? Or maybe, just maybe, this bundle of love was completely ignoring her mother?
She was, in fact. It was the Backyardigans or me, and she had made her choice. She would not budge. She, the most obstinate of all creatures, would not allow me to put on her socks or boots without battling back with kicks and shrill, brash, guttural yawls. Her face turned flame-red; her eyes rolled to show only white. I picked her up—me Tarzan, she Jane—and tossed her over my shoulder, bracing Caroline for what was to come: “Get ready to run!” and we took off down the long hallway, past the basketball court, the bench press, the manager’s office, the water fountains, the lockers, and finally the front desk, where Denise, who usually provides a fresh towel and mildly-approving comments about the girls’ cherub faces or their matching Hello Kitty boots, looked at me in complete horror. I was sweating more at that moment than I’d ever sweat on a treadmill. I’d left the Australian retreat for the cattle station where feral pigs were devouring dead cows and man-eating ants were nibbling away at my toes. I put my screaming mass of a child down between soundproof doors and somehow talked her into putting boots on feet. We made our way home.
Lexi had made a decision and stuck to it. She does this often. Caroline calls it “independent” while her dad and I call it something altogether different. I will put Lexi in a pair of pants, and she will take them off just to put them on again. I will take her out of the car when it is pouring rain, in order to hurry the process along, and she will cry and squiggle in protest until I let her stand, and then she will crawl back into the car—those awkward Hello Kitty boots just in the way—so she can turn around and drop, dribble, or tumble out alone. My little Eve, willing and able to take the Fall all on her own.
I saw a documentary called This Emotional Life a few months back, and the segment that stuck with me had to do with making choices as it relates to happiness. There were two groups of people. One group sat in a room, looking at artwork lined on a wall. These people were told that they could each choose one poster and take it home. Members of the second group were also told they could take a poster home, but if they changed their minds, they could exchange one poster for another. The researchers found that the individuals who had only one choice—to take a poster home—were far happier with their decisions as compared to the members of the second group. A no-brainer, really. (Maybe I should be a scientist?) With choosing can come insecurity, worry, and doubt, but if you go to all of that trouble to pick one thing over another, just to turn around and trade it in, then you’re not going anywhere. I sometimes fantasize about shopping at the only supermarket in town, buying the only available brand of toothpaste. Life could be easier. But there are strip malls and walls of toothpaste. Yes, with choosing comes angst, but with a firm decision and a step in the slightest direction, comes potential growth and maybe even happiness—a brand new poster, whiter teeth, fresher breath.
I want my girls to have it all, but when I’m real, and when they are at the age when we can talk about these things, I will tell them to make a decision, as best they can, and stick with it. Lexi, do it with a yawl if you have to. Caroline, do it with manners, I don’t care. But once you make your choice, don’t waste time wondering what other life you might have led. What if you had gone to that school? Taken that job? Boarded that plane? I cannot lead you down a particular road, and as best I can, I will honor your decision-making. But whatever you do—after you have thought it through, after it’s done—I hope you choose happiness. I hope the only looking back brings you what is good about remembering.
I didn’t see the breach, but I tasted fresh salmon caught and cooked on a fire by a native fisherman. Each night a gathering of luminescent little organisms shimmered in the water as I brushed my teeth at its edge, while stars showered behind shadows of trees. Heavy morning fog sometimes broke into bright blue, sometimes not. I didn’t see the breach, but I stood on a sailboat, head-to-toe soaked with rain and sea, squinting to see what I could of the two humpback whales racing beside me. And I spent time in a kayak, waiting quietly for a grey whale to surface, holding my breath, looking around at the smooth water beneath me until—there—an echoing pop! and thundering show of water through a blow hole. Up that whale rose just inches away; I could nearly touch the scars and barnacles with my hand. My very own grey whale, slowly diving, just to resurface again and again and again.
“Hear lion waterfall, Mommy!” Caroline is standing by the bay window, her face turned to the outside, her little body turned to me—already trying to be in different places at once. There is a lot for an almost-two-year-old to see, after all. She is at the start of it, attracting everyone and everything: an elderly woman, a middle-aged man, a toddler boy, not-a-one can escape the pull and promise of this little girl. She draws smiles and awakens eyes wherever we go. Winter winds race to pinch and redden those cheeks of hers. Even the light coming from the other side of the bay window lands on Caroline with resolve, knowing she’s the one in the room most deserving of its attention.
“Baby ‘Corn hear lion waterfall, Mommy!” Caroline’s holding out a white unicorn figurine. The fact that it’s one of those “Little People” characters from Fisher Price escapes Caroline. This is a friend, and wherever we go, so goes Baby Unicorn, Mommy Unicorn, Kingee, Queenie, Dragon, and Maid Mary. Sometimes Stone Wall, Bed, and Food hitch a ride, and occasionally purple chair scores the invite, so I’m thankful that a few months back I bought on impulse a small, green felt bag with a monkey’s face on one side… soft, durable “Monkey Bag” is the ideal transport vehicle.
I’m sitting on the couch with another baby, Baby Alexandra, the 6-month old, who is mellow and smiley and patient and lovely and by all accounts a second-child. She’ll every-now-and-then cry when she’s tired or hungry, but for the most part, she’s come to understand that she will be be cared for … just as soon as her big sister has been cared for. We are calling her “Alex” and “Lex” interchangeably, so even her name is in constant movement—she is as soft and durable as Monkey Bag. I ask Caroline, “Baby Unicorn hears the lion waterfall?”
I like to think that I am a fun, strong, good mother. Caroline and I read books; we sing songs; we go to the playground to swing on the “wee-wee,” and (well, once) we finger-paint with food-colored vanilla pudding. But I had a rule (no tv for Caroline until she’s two) and as soon as Alex was born, I broke it. Now, when I nurse Alex, Caroline gets to watch “Dragon Tales.” It was the only way, the only way I thought at the time, that I could preserve my sanity. To be sure, there are worse things she could be watching, but the Dragon Tales theme song is as catchy as a common cold, following me to sleep, waking me in the morning, and bursting from my lips while I’m (well, once) cooking dinner. Irrepressibly contagious theme song aside, it’s been so interesting to see how Caroline has welcomed the Dragon Tales characters into her life. She talks of Max and Emmy as if she’s just left them in their playroom. She lights up when you ask her “Now what’s the name of the pink dragon? And the blue one?” Like her Monkey Bag companions, the DT crew has become a part of her world. Space is expanding around her—a wide open ball of fresh, welcoming, wonderful air—and Caroline is letting us all in.
So…the lion waterfall. Mr Pop is the guy in one DT episode who uses a fancy gadget to take sounds and transplant them. A frog “cockle-doodle-doos,” a cow “croaaaks,” and a waterfall roars like a lion. Although the television is off, this is what Caroline and Baby Unicorn hear as they stand by the bay window.
I am one who does not like to lose a friend. I really don’t. I need to stay connected to all of those people who were at one time important to me. I’ll take the annual Christmas card, the occasional email, the random phone call, whatever—I just like to think that the contact is a possibility, that the line is open.
The line to Mary Kate is as direct and immediate as they come for me, even though she and I, after we graduated from college, lived very different lives. She married Bobby and had her three kids before I even met my future husband, Dave. She saw me through several bad breakups, heard a bit about my stint as a lead singer in a band, and we kept in touch through the years even though at times it seemed we were speaking completely different languages. Just before I met Dave, I lost my mom to cancer, and three months before my mom died, Mary Kate lost her mother to cancer. It was the oddest of reconnections. For me, being Mary Kate’s friend was the only easy thing about watching my mom die. Mary Kate had done it just before me. It was possible.
We spoke even more on the phone during the months following our mothers’ deaths, and five years later, I will see a woman in the supermarket that looks just like her mom, get home, and pick up the phone. She will see my mom in a dream, looking really healthy and happy, and she will pick up the phone.
As Caroline hears the lion waterfall, I think of a story from one of those phone calls, when Mary Kate’s youngest—about the age of Caroline now—was in the back seat of the car, pointing outside of the window at his “nanna” who was on the other side of the window. I believed it then: that her mother was there, angel wings and all, to spend time with this irresistible little boy, this pumpkin-faced sweetheart who was welcoming everyone and everything into his growing world. She was not going to miss this. No matter what, she was going to strap on wings and fly to him. That baby saw his grandmother. He was at this glorious age where his wide open eyes were taking it all in.
Caroline is there right now. Right now. I wonder with awe and a tinge of jealousy what she is seeing, and at this very moment, I wonder what she is hearing. It may be that she hears the distant rumble of the trash truck; it may be that she hears the toss and tumble of the clothes dryer. Or, it may be that she hears the lion waterfall. I’m giving it to her. I’m allowing it as a possibility, just as I’m allowing the possibility of a visit from a healthy and happy angel. What I would do to mingle with them in that welcoming, wonderful air.