Catching up on promised posts, below is an excerpt from a chapter of Lunchbox Notes. The plan is to follow this up with the resolution of Panning for Character Gold, but we all know what happens when I say things like that.
But do stay tuned, because at the end of the next post is a very exciting heads up.
Without further ado-
[“Mommy, where’s Charlie?”
I had been back to work for nearly a year and probably hadn’t sat down at all during that time. My hours were wonky; my off days were split; and my kids were subconsciously bucking against it just as much as I wanted to. After years of being at home with my children and having the luxury of breaking up household chores throughout the week, I resented- with all my heart- having to now cram in as much make-up work as I could on the days off I so badly wanted to spend with my children. As the afternoon light filtered in the glass panes by the front door, a yellow glow cast itself against the walls. I looked up from the sink, where I had been scrubbing dishes bitterly next to the dishwasher that had recently stopped working- again- and turned my head toward the question posed to me.
“She’s in time out.”
“She’s been in there a long time.”
“Well, if she hadn’t…”
I looked at the clock on the stove. Christ, how did the time go so fast? She really has been in there a long time. Mid-sentence, I looked into the pudgy face of my youngest child, who was standing with her hands on her hips, looking squarely back at me, insistently. After I erupted earlier due to Charlie’s poor behavior, it didn’t matter how badly Maddie wanted to play with her sister. She knew it was better, for once, to keep her sass stifled until Mom quit boiling and set her sister free. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t plant the seed.
“Okay, baby. Thank you.”
Off she went.
I let out a long sigh- the ones that come out like a moody teenager who’s been summoned for a family supper. Tilting my head from side to side, I began preparing to make an apology I didn’t want to make. Shouldn’t have to make. Was tired of making. My coffee was cold, and everything in the house I could barely afford was breaking. If my six-year-old would quit acting like a hellion, I wouldn’t end up in these positions, sending her to her room just so I could re-establish some domestic equilibrium. Nothing about household expectations had changed recently. There’s no reason for this sudden streak of antagonistic behavior.
Although, upon reflection, I couldn’t remember what she had done to end up in time out this time.
Maddie watched furtively from behind a playset on the living room floor as the sun beams bounced off my legs and baggy t-shirt. Eyes wide and almost laughing, my little Loki observed the grumbling rain cloud as if she knew something I did not- or maybe was just tickled that her mischief had been effective. I would have stuck my tongue out at her to relieve some of the tension and un-do some of the mean mom damage, but I had bobby pins pressed between my lips, as I pinned away loose tendrils on the fly. Couldn’t look a mess while dealing with one.
By the time I reached the book case and satisfactory hair security, a heavy-blanket feeling draped itself over me. It took the rumbling right out of my storm and left me feeling suddenly vacant and chilly. I paused in the shadow of the hallway briefly, throwing a quick look into Lucas’ room. Sprawled out like he was trying to hug the whole mattress, he was soundly sleeping, face-down as he had done from birth. I listened to his breath catch and sputter, my eyes softening as I looked at the boy who just fifteen minutes ago, told me that I was the worst mom ever for making him take a nap when he “wasn’t tired.” I think he nearly stomped through the floor boards on the way to his room, and the neighbors probably heard the injustice of his battered soul for all the yelling. When he woke up, I could safely bet on his trudging through the living room to lean bleary-eyed against me as a wordless apology.
I made myself pull his bedroom door shut, somehow filled with complete dread of entering Charlie’s room. She almost always came out of time out within ten to fifteen minutes, still angry and crying, but contending that she’d learned her lesson and was better now, asking if she could play. “I’ll be nice, Mommy!” she’d hurl at me. Oh, I’m sure, I’d think, then weigh my options.
But she didn’t come out this time.
Come to think of it, I don’t think she even threw a tantrum.
Fully terrified of my own wayward child, I nudged her bedroom door open and was met with streams of light pouring through the slats of her window blinds. This light wasn’t yellow, but pure, bright illumination, enshrining my daughter as she sat on the edge of her bed gazing aimlessly out. The particles in the air caught the rays as they floated, making her seem somewhat hallowed as opposed to reminding me to dust. It felt like I should genuflect and make The Sign of the Cross. Instead, I stood there shifting my weight for a few seconds.
“What are you doing, Little Bee?”
She didn’t say anything, but I saw her shoulders shake quietly. My child- my first grader, six-year-old, barely-out-of-preschool-stages child- had mastered the art of crying silently. My mind’s eye flashed quickly back to a little girl on a floral comforter, beneath the shadow of a top bunk, watching tear drops roll down her nose on to an Etch-a-Sketch covered in broken hearts. I saw her push her glasses back up her nose before being startled by someone opening the door, looking annoyed at her tears. My heart started breaking before my words stumbled out in the present.
“Why are you crying, Charlie?”
As she pulled her short legs around and bluntly pushed her hair out of her face, I gasped some deep breaths to keep my face from scrunching up. I felt the heat rising behind my nose, and I tilted my chin to keep the water in my eyes. I took the opportunity to make a last-ditch effort to compose myself while she wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“Because, Mommy. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is when my heart hurts and my head cries. Something feels bad inside, Mommy. Something hurts.”
I caught her as she crumpled into heaving sobs and snot-covered apologies. Holding her hair out of her face, I rocked her as she emptied out fears of being a bad child, of always doing the wrong thing, of not understanding why things were the way they were. Her little hands grasped at my shirt as if she were afraid that I would move away from her, ashamed of her inability to process the very adult concepts that ripped the floor out from under the world she knew. As if I would walk away from her and shut the door, leaving her to crawl about on the floor in the dark, looking for the light switch. My mind flashed again to the little girl on the comforter, gripping a small, white, stuffed bunny to her chest, weeping away the overwhelming perception that she was a disappointment. A failure.
“No, baby. No, no, no. You’re not a bad child, Charlie. You’re a good, sweet girl who sometimes gets upset and acts out. We are all learning together how to make good decisions, baby. Things are hard right now.”
“But, why, Mommy? Why can’t Daddy come home? Why can’t you guys love each other anymore? Who broke it? Can’t you just say sorry, Mommy, and then you can stop working? And everything can go back. And it won’t hurt.”
In my hands was the most precious, fragile thing I had ever held, and she was breaking. She was breaking into a thousand pieces, and it felt like my fault. Now I clutched her, afraid she would move away from me, angry and unable to forgive me for what I had done and failed to do. We laid over on her bed, and it was all I could do to smooth her hair while she sobbed and tell her, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so very sorry. And it was the truth- I was sorry. So very, very sorry. None of this was her fault, and yet she was paying so dearly for it.
She cried herself out and to sleep before I could figure out how to fix it. We had talked so many times about how married people have to have a special kind of love, and when that love isn’t there, the marriage doesn’t work. Sometimes, you start out trying to love someone that way, but it becomes something else. Her father and I couldn’t agree on much, but we could commit to reiterating to her, especially, that no one was wrong, per se, but that the love that was supposed to be there between us wasn’t there. To stop the arguing and to be better parents- completely focused on her and her siblings- we would do better apart. And since we weren’t married anymore, Daddy couldn’t live in the house with Mommy. But that didn’t mean that she didn’t have a home. Now, we told her, you have TWO homes. One with Daddy, and one with Mommy. You have your place in both houses.
She was always dubious. She never liked sugar-coating. But she’d rarely say anything- just observe, internalize, and move on.
Until she couldn’t.
And now she was being tossed around, like a little sailboat with no sail. A storm had come, and the harbor was all smashed to bits. There was nowhere safe to go anymore. Not to her. Everything was smashed and disorienting, and she was at the mercy of rough seas.
And I couldn’t get to her, because I was being tossed around, too.
Before I realized she was sleeping on my chest, I had lost myself in some panicked jog through options. Was this worth it? I can’t do this to her. I mean, could I not just suck it up with her dad? Maybe he’ll grow up, and we’ll figure it out. And things could be fine, right? I cringed, because I knew better. I knew enough to know that no amount of changing would or could take place to make things right between us. We had well and truly broken it, the marriage we had. I didn’t even care to get into the weeds about who was more at fault because it just didn’t matter. We wrecked it all, then ground the pieces into dust so that there was nothing to glue back together, even if we wanted to. Still, I wondered and followed the rabbit into the hole.
Disentangling myself from Charlie, I closed her blinds and tucked her in, setting a timer for forty-five minutes. No matter how much I wanted her to sleep until things were better (or at least tenable), I still had to parent. I couldn’t let her ruin her night-time routine. It was the only sense of normalcy we had for the time, and children need consistency.
I passed through the living room like a floating apparition, detached temporarily from my setting. Maddie had given up waiting on her sister to be granted freedom and had curled up with a picture book on the couch. Her cheeks laid up against the board book, she drooled a little through her open mouth, scowl upon her brow. She was impatient, even in her sleep. As I moved into the kitchen, the shadows grew longer across the floor.
The house was still, except for the tissue I ripped out of the box on the counter as I settled into a lean against the stove. I looked at the pots resting upside-down on dish towels across the counter, and I remembered a scene identical to the one in which I was currently residing. I stood just like this, holding a tissue, as her father turned to me with mouth agape, holding a pot of mac and cheese. We looked at each other as if we had heard a gunshot, then looked down and away from each other.
“If that’s what you want. Is that what you want?”
“It’s not what I want. But why are we still doing this? Is it really better for the kids if we’re arguing all the time?”
“Is it really better for the kids if I move out?”
“Look. I’m not trying to be ugly, but I don’t want my daughters looking at this relationship thinking this is how they ought to be treated, that this is what they should expect. And, so help me, if my son ever grew up to…to behave in some of the ways his father did…”
“I got it. You didn’t have to go there.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Yeah, Lydia. I heard you.”
I didn’t know it was possible to hate the way someone stirred a pot of macaroni, but I stood there, hating the way he was stirring a pot of macaroni. I watched him set his jaw, then slam the pot down on the stove. He took his wedding band off and let it hit hard on the counter.
“I guess we could sell these rings, then. You can have the money to use for Christmas.”
I didn’t want to talk about Christmas.
No. There was no going back. There was no changing the course I had set us- Charlie and me- out upon. I had to find my way. Figure it out. And then I would go looking for her and tow her back in to shore. Pray to God she didn’t sink, because there was no avoiding this experience for us. We were going to have to be survivors, she and I, and we’d have to watch out for her siblings, too. It wasn’t fair, but this was all we had to go on right now. I had to ask my child to carry this weight, even if she wasn’t responsible for it.
Even if it was mine.
And her father’s.
Disgusted, I walked carefully but briskly to my bedroom, and pulled the door almost shut. With my tissue still in hand, I lowered myself to the floor in the far corner of my bedroom, on the opposite side of the bed from the door. I pulled my knees into my chest and rested my elbows on them, forehead on my upward palms. I could feel it rising into my chest, then above my collar bone. I let my mouth hang open, and out it came.
“It hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. Oh, God, this hurts.”]