On a lined page, Diana, 6, has written E is for Eating, and “Did you know that if you don’t eat anything for a long time, you can die!”
I sit down next to her at the kitchen table during our second week of distance learning. Her brother Luke, 9, is on his dad’s laptop on the couch across the room, and Mark, 11, is on the living room desktop trying to find his live English class on Microsoft Teams.
I open my computer, hoping to be able to look over emails, and say to Diana, “You’re almost done with E. All you have to do is write two more facts,” trying to see if a hands-off approach will work today.
Some days that tight feeling in my chest arises after repeated technical glitches and sibling conflicts, but today I seem to have woken up with it. I feel like an enforcer, not a teacher — a fire tamer, a battle breaker or as Luke recently called me, a warden.
Diana writes a sentence so faint it’s illegible. She scribbles. Then erases a spot over and over so hard she seems to want the paper to rip.
“Mama!,” calls Mark. “I don’t know how to do this!” The middle school is introducing another platform — Canvas Instructure — and I gird myself for another login struggle, another digital terrain to get lost in, another place for my son to worry that he is falling behind.
When I sigh and groan today, Diana is not going to lean her head on me and give me a side hug, looking at me with eyes that say, I’m sorry you’re upset. She is not going to draw me a rainbow, like the ones she used to bring home from school every day, and write “I love you!” on it as she always did.
“So what’s another thing you know to be true about eating?” I return to asking her, then check on Luke with his zombie eyes who says he is doing research for a persuasive essay on whether video games are good for kids or not.
“When you eat, you have to go to the bathroom,” she says in a voice that is not hers, staring at Luke across the room.
“Diana, don’t do your homework if you don’t want to take it seriously,” I say.
Earlier this morning a man had walked up to our door with a big box. It was the remaining two basketballs: he could have been carrying a trophy of gold. Little pleasures, like Rubik’s cubes, picnics, and books of mazes from grandma, have made bright splashes on our days.
“Let’s go play with the new basketballs,” I say. It’s 11am, and Mark is swerving around like a rubber band being stretched, Luke is as glazed as a doughnut, and Diana is sulking in bed reading Captain Underpants.
On the way to the park, sunshine pours over us like a rinsing cleanse. But it doesn’t touch the dread inside. I cannot escape the shadow of the tidal wave that is about to exact its fury on us, pulling everything up into it as it prepares to pound it all down.
There is a single boy at the court with his nanny, hitting a ball with a racket. “Give him some space!” I keep having to tell the kids, as if he were an alien.
After ten minutes, Diana comes crying to me saying that Mark scratched her. Mark yells back that she did something to him.
“Do you want to go see the dogs in the dog park?” I ask, pulling her toward me but feeling as warm as a statue. She says no, even though she loves animals, but I slow down anyway at the fence to see the only dog left. His smiling face, the joy he gets from a simple game of fetch, blurs my eyes with tears. I push them back so Diana won’t notice.
“I wish I could play what that boy is playing,” she says, looking back to the only other people here.
“We can bring a tennis racket next time,” I say, as if what she needed were simply a matter of equipment.
Manage your anxiety, they say. Create a calm setting. Don’t talk about disturbing news stories. Shield them from the worst — assure them that parents have a plan. I feel like I am a steel locker walking around pretending to be a woman.
It’s almost noon, so I say to the boys on the basketball court, “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” We have become buds. The four of us doing more than we ever have together. Depending on me and each other for everything. “Diana and I have to make lunch,” I say.
“You mean, you’re going to make lunch?” Luke says, still mad about last week, when I didn’t ask Diana to spread cream cheese on bagels because we had run out of time and she was busy setting the table.
“Did you make lunches when you were 6?” I snap. Diana makes some kind of face at him, and he tosses his basketball at her, and she falls to the ground, holding her leg and crying, as if it’s been broken. But it’s not her leg that’s broken.
I tell the boys to go ahead. After a while Diana begins to move her feet inch by inch. Eventually she starts to walk at a more normal pace, and I keep a slow rhythm, trying to metabolize the heaviness inside, and focusing on little things along the way — the purple buds sprouting along the chalky plum tree branches, the abandoned ride-on toys in a yard, the glint of mica bits in sand like tiny diamonds in the sun.
Diana keeps up but stays about 6 feet behind. “You don’t love me because you don’t laugh when I say something funny in my homework,” she says.
“I didn’t laugh because your homework was not the right place to be silly,” I try to explain.
“Well, people do have to go to the bathroom when they eat, and pee when they drink. You don’t know anything. You just look at trees and do that little smile.” On a stoop in a row of townhouses, a father stands over his toddler but doesn’t make eye contact with us when we pass.
“You don’t even do anything when Luke is mean to me. Why did you even make him go alive? He’s always so mean,” Diana says.
“I try to be fair, but it’s just not always clear what has happened,” I say.
“Don’t play with my ball,” she says. I silently obey, propping it under my upper arm and then keep walking.
“You don’t love me, so I don’t love you. I don’t even like you.” In the distance, a lawnmower rumbles and a girl kicks a ball against a garage door in an alley.
“You’re not even good at basketball. You’re not good at soccer either,” she says. “I didn’t do my homework today. I didn’t do my homework for three days. Ha, ha. I’m not even going to make lunch when we get home,” she says, as we begin to pass by the houses where we know people’s names and could knock on their door if we needed a safe place.
“And I’m not going to set the table.” Our house, big and soft, is only a half block away. It looks like a fortress and yet so vulnerable.
I swing open the door — the air is steamy and filled with smells of basil and toasted almonds and salty starch. Virginia, 16, is at the stove, Kanye West is blasting, and she says, “Is it OK if I switch with someone and make lunch today?” She looks like an angel with her flowing blond hair and wooden spoon in her hand like a wand. “Because I found a recipe that uses all the stuff that we have.”
Diana carefully takes off her coat and hangs it on her hook, takes off her shoes and places them by the radiator, and then climbs the stairs to her room.
I don’t know where to go, so I sit in a corner of the empty living room. The last song ends and “No Mistakes” comes on. Bright major chords pump the house with yellow notes. “Make no mistake, girl, I still love you,” a choir sings over and over, and I know it’s the complex gospel of a man telling his wife and the mother of their children that nothing has changed even though so much has. Tears escape and stream down my face. I see our family together in the car last summer — my husband, all of our children, on a road trip — and Virginia is playing this song. We were so happy — the memory bathed in an amber light — and now, everything is so mixed up and messed up.
“Diana, time to set the table!” Virginia calls up the stairs. “Now — I’m serving!” I wipe my face dry and keep writing in my notebook. I can see Diana through the french doors bringing glasses to the table, remembering to give people water instead of milk to save on grocery trips.
“Yay, I’m so excited to eat!” she says while folding the flowered cloth napkins that Sofia and Virginia sewed for me.
When she is done, she comes toward me, and climbs gingerly on the couch without saying anything, and then lifts her eyes to mine. For a moment, she is me, the contrite mother, and I am her, the wounded child.
“Your eyes are watery,” she says.
I know there is love in here somewhere, but we can’t seem to get to it. Trying so hard to hold things up as the world crumbles around us.
Grief, my yoga teacher tells a woman who has just lost someone, is the greatest form of love. It carves a deeper hole in our heart so we can hold more love.
I’m not familiar with grief. And now every day, I am staring it in the face, wrestling with it, trying to stop it from breaking me open.