When I tuck in my six-year-old daughter tonight, she says she’s grateful for ice cream. Then she takes my palm and, with her eyes closed tight, kisses it and says, “Even if you wash this hand, the kiss will stay.”
I had been feeling sad that afternoon. And mad at myself for feeling sad. I should be over this. I should be getting better.
I took a walk by myself through the cold damp, taking the alleys, the secret ways of the neighborhood: broken gates swinging open, moss growing on tree roots, window sills rotting.
Fellow walkers stayed so far away, out of kindness or fear, that our eyes couldn’t meet.
Yesterday my 16-year-old daughter Virginia painted her room frosty pink over the Dalila yellow she had chosen when she was 10, and placed purses and sexy clothes on the shelves which used to hold Keira Cass novels and encyclopedias of Greek mythology.
I find the turquoise leather Holy Bible that my aunt gave her and its onion-skin pages remind me of my grandmother, who would underline passages with a ballpoint pen and a ruler, passages that I didn’t understand but that seemed mysterious and important.
I find the poem “A Time for Everything” in Ecclesiastes on page 841. It says that everything is supposed to be this way: there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to be born and a time to die.
In my bedroom after my walk, I can hear Virginia chopping broccoli downstairs, playing Whitesnake songs I listened to when I was young and new Dope Boy ones I don’t understand. My children are becoming adults. I am getting older too.
I thought this life was going to be safe. I have not been a refugee, a revolutionary, a migrant. A minority, a wounded soldier, or a widow. I have been spared the trials of being hungry, poor, or homeless. It has been a stable existence, rocked only by dramas of my own creation.
But all our scientific advances and smart phones and futures trading were not enough to save us from this plague.
When I tuck my 9-year-old son Luke into bed, I sing him “Amazing Grace,” as I have done since he was an infant with a silky-border blanket. I touch his slight, smooth arms and know they will be bigger than mine one day. He doesn’t think his lullaby is as special as the one I sing to his sister, “You are My Sunshine.” What is a wretch, he asks, and how can you see if you were blind?
But this song gets to the heart, the opposites bundled up inextricably into this one big life. Yet I keep insisting on strength without getting hurt, rest without feeling exhausted, understanding without confusion, courage without fear. Where tyranny was missing, I have created my own oppression of easy smiles, bouncy optimism, and relentless self-improvement.
I lie in my bed after the children are asleep, the older ones quiet on their screens. The cat who disrupts my slumber too early every morning rests his purring face into the curve of my hand.
The kiss is what stays. I feel it as she sleeps and I am still. It’s something strong yet untouchable, like love. I want to hang onto the sunshine, push away the storms. But there’s something that infuses and encircles it all. And the only way to hold onto it is to somehow let go.
I climb into bed at noon. I want to feel relief that I am here, not on the street trying to explain myself to a police officer, my kids’ faces still damp and red. The muscles inside my face feel as if they were pulled with a draw-string. Crying might help, but tears don’t come.
I can hear Sofia, 18, downstairs opening and closing cabinets and banging pots — it’s her turn to make lunch. And even farther down, the sounds of Luke and Diana playing in the basement.
No matter how long I lie here, the ache in my face doesn’t ease. I close my eyes again and see visions of relieving the tension by slashing the muscles with a knife.
Last fall we stayed in a cabin in the West Virginia woods, and I found a book on the shelves called The Secret Life of Water. My family thought I was cuckoo as I took notes on it like it was a treasure map.
Photographs of stunning snowflake water crystals were interspersed with pictures of lopsided runny crystals. The difference, the Japanese author Emoto Masaru said, was the words that the water was exposed to right before it was frozen. Words like “thank you,” “I love you,” and “beautiful” resulted in glorious designs. “You’re no good” and “I hate you” made incomplete, malformed crystals.
From my bedroom, I hear Luke and Diana come upstairs and say to Mark who must be in his bunk bed, “Why hasn’t Mama come back yet?”
This day was not supposed to go this way. It’s Friday, the end of the fourth week of distance learning, and I was going to help the boys tackle the assignments that had haunted them all week. The essays, math workbook pages, and Powerpoint presentations that had been tangled up with dread, avoidance, and paralysis would get swept up and hauled in, just in time for the sweet rest of the weekend.
I sat on the living room couch with Mark, 12, a little before our normal 9 a.m. start time. “Writing in a notebook is like normal spinach,” Mark said, as I insisted he write his climate change definitions on paper. “Then it shrinks when you put it in type.”
Luke has assured me that he doesn’t need help with his 4th grade essay comparing two short stories, but I look over at him on his dad’s laptop. He looks gluey and I see that he is scrolling through emojis in Microsoft Teams chats. “C’mon, Luke, let’s get started,” I say, digging in against the familiar resistance. “You have to get this done done by lunch.”
I go back to Mark, this studious 6th grader who used to tell me that he could take care of his homework on his own. He has fallen backward onto the couch like a pencil, groaning, “I don’t know what to do!”
Some of the miniature boxwoods in our garden along the flowerbeds look almost dead, the kids and I notice. Unlike most plants in spring, they are missing the light green flush of new growth, their leaves dull and tinged with orange. We need to say encouraging words to them, I tell the kids, but I feel kind-of ridiculous as I rustle the little shrubs and say, “C’mon guys, you can do it.”
Diana at 6 years old is a natural. In a high-pitched voice she tells them, “You need to grow buds so you can be bigger and stronger like your daddy.” Then I see her go to the old boxwood by the fence, notice its branches lit with new green and say in a sweet voice, “You need to encourage your babies to grow buds.”
It’s almost 10 a.m. now, Mark is still frozen and Luke is fiddling with text sizes and fonts, but it’s time to get Diana logged in and ready for the check-in with her teachers and two other kids from the Blue Table. She is wearing an astronaut costume for spirit day and is excited to be paid attention to and get to hold an iPad. “Run up and get a book you’ve read this week — but not Captain Underpants!” I tell her. Faces appear in the panes around the screen, and I set her up in a sunny window seat in the foyer, and soon first-graders in meandering voices begin to tell about their week.
I’m supposed to stay close by, but the dishwasher is not that far, so I put in the rest of the breakfast dishes and then check email. My husband has forwarded me an alert from the mayor: distance learning is now going through May 29 when school will end for the year. So many casualties in this pronouncement, including 2,400 cases and 86 deaths in the District, but all I can think of is myself: how can I do this for another 6 weeks?
Mark is still lying upside down over the arm of the couch. I say, “Why not tell the story through the life of a tree, or a rock?” My suggestion is met with snarled lips, so I move over to Luke, who has apparently already learned the art of switching browser tabs when someone comes near. “If the computer is too distracting,” feeling like a witch as I speak because I know that even CEOs and rocket scientists get waylaid, “you can write it by hand.”
By 10:25 I haven’t seen Sofia and Virginia yet, so I go upstairs, creak open the attic door and say, “Hey guys, you up?” Establishing a regular routine for at-home learning was important, all the experts were saying, so at our Sunday night family meeting before distance learning began, I had proposed a 9 a.m. start time. The teens balked, arguing that it was better to not have everyone together at the same time anyway, and negotiated a later bedtime and a 10:30 a.m. start. Let’s see how it goes, I had said.
The window seat conference has deteriorated quickly. I come in after Mark, draped like a rag over the computer chair, has already said loud enough for the teacher to hear, “Your friends are so boring,” and Luke has retorted, “What? She doesn’t have any friends.” And then Mark, this boy who has never gotten in trouble at school, sticks his butt into the circle of faces in the iPad and makes a loud long farting sound.
The subtle energy that exists in all things vibrates in unique frequencies or waves. The synchronization of energy waves — love, fear, acceptance, loneliness — can be sent and received by others. Similar patterns can be found all throughout the universe — from the spiral in a snail to the spiral of the galaxy. The human body is a miniaturization of what is going on in the grandeur of nature. All things are in flux. Nothing is permanent.
My notes from The Secret Life of Water
The kids run in and out of the house to get masks and coats, and then bikes. Luke comes out crying saying that Mark has thrown the card that opens his safe behind the bed and now he can’t get the $6 he was supposed to give him for his birthday.
“I guess Mark won’t get his present today,” I say.
We usually get out of the house by 11:30 a.m. — by then everyone is woozy and pecked over by their siblings and I’m breathing shallowly. We had to leave today with so little accomplished that the boys didn’t even want to ride bikes.
“This is so boring,” says Mark as we get going up the middle of the street toward CVS to get groceries.
“I don’t want to go either but there’s nothing else to do!” says Luke.
Diana is motoring up the hill in her starter bike and the boys loop around her, cutting her off, knocking her off balance, and she screeches over and over, “Stop!”
I can feel the cement that had been hardening inside me all morning become a solid block. And if I am honest, I know it’s not just about the schooling and the fighting.
This morning, before the kids woke up, I had opened my laptop and saw a long-time hope about my writing be shattered. Words were uttered so quietly I didn’t hear them: Nobody cares . . . You’re all alone. For a beat I felt like I had been swallowed by a gulf. Then I swallowed the gulf, clicked the computer closed, and sealed it all up.
Mark, who had to be pulled away from the desk and forced outside, had a warped look on his face. “You don’t have to come,” I tell him. “You can stay home and play.”
“You mean we can stay home and play video games?” asked Luke.
“And eat a bunch of candy and go crazy?” said Mark.
“Do whatever you want,” I say.
“And we won’t get points?”
“Whatever. Do whatever you want.”
Collapsing, like over-exerting, is a form of violence, says the Sunrise Yoga teacher that I see every morning at 7:00 a.m. in the TV in my basement.
I want to kill them with this freedom. They keep riding up the hill with me.
In nature, water is always in motion. Even when it seems to stand still, it is slowly sinking into the earth or evaporating into mist, rotting leaves, or sheltering water creatures we can’t even see.
When the kids ride past the entrance to CVS, I don’t call them back, thinking they’ll realize and turn around. Through the automatic glass door that has just closed behind me, I can see them chatting with Duane, the homeless guy in the parking lot.
Olive oil, milk, eggs, walnuts, granola: the list in my hand says. I don’t even smile at the employees I know as I walk by, figuring they’ll think it’s because of my mask or that everyone is grumpy these days.
Passing through the 50%-off Easter section, I grab a box of egg dye for next year, and glance back, not wanting to admit that I’m hoping that they will come in any minute and call, “Mama?”
I feel like a criminal, my whole torso is now churning. In the magazine section, I don’t find any maze books for Luke and Diana but stop to examine a Penny Press “On the Go” Word Seek.
More furious now with myself than with them, I take 2 of the word search booklets and head to the grocery aisles. An employee with a blue surgical mask sets a box down on the ground and begins unpacking.
I see a flash of the three of them with their bikes at Whole Foods, Diana sobbing and frantic.
“Remember when the waves were really big in Italy?” Diana said recently on an evening walk. “That was so, so, so fun!”
I was afraid of those waves — I’d been clobbered too many times by the sea. But she, who had just turned 5 and couldn’t even swim and only had a floaty that we called her ciambella, felt joy. “It was like you were riding a wave to the sun!”
Don’t struggle when you’re drowning. Don’t try to fight the waves. Don’t swim against the tide, you’ll wear yourself out. Just let go and float.
They only had to cross one intersection with a stoplight — they’ll be fine. I find generic olive oil and get two because the second one is half off. Mark is 12. He can handle this for everyone. Semi-trucks on the avenue rumble like a herd of elephants charging a watering hole. I grab the dried mango slices I know they like, and then head to the self-checkout.
Like a vase full of cracks, I gingerly scan all the items myself, something the kids would have loved to have done — jockeying to push buttons, scan bar codes, and insert the credit card. On the walk home alone, the cold sun feels like an x-ray.
I get to the house, the two heavy plastic bags now cutting into both hands. I don’t see any bikes or coats tossed in front, and I know I’m in trouble.
Sofia is taking a baking sheet out of the oven when I walk in. “What happened?” she says. “You should bring your phone with you when you go out. They’re here but they didn’t know where you went, and I was trying to get a hold of you. I thought you would be worried.”
Living in this world is not so much like walking in air but like swimming in water. The waves I create affect everyone around me, and the waves of others affect me.
Holding back feelings like fear, sadness, and disappointment prevent me from healing. Being happy all the time would be like a wave that never falls.
If you have been offended, forgive the offender. And if you feel oppressed for your own offenses against others, forgive yourself.
“Lunch!” Sofia calls after about an hour, and then gathers her laptop and cord and notebooks and heads down to the basement for a class, leaving me and Mark and Luke and Diana alone with each other and our plates of lentils, kale, homemade hummus, and rings of watermelon radishes.
“Where were you?” says Luke. “We went into CVS but didn’t see you.”
“I was holding a bunch of stuff and I was too angry to go running after you,” I say. So many pent up emotions inside me. Enough to power Las Vegas.
What would it be like if, instead of starting my day with, “This is not working,” I started it with, “You’re beautiful”?
Diana looks into my eyes, her eyes wet with empathy, comes over to me and kisses my face.
I begin to open a spillway. Let the lights go dim in Vegas. There’s probably no one there anyway.