I am sitting outside on my deck, because it’s the only clean place in my house. It’s been only two weeks since Husband returned to the desert, but it feels like a very long time. I can barely remember sitting and anxiously watching one more sunset from my bed on the night before his return for R&R. In many ways, it feels like he didn’t even come home at all. I am remembering the 14 glorious days when he was home and there was order. The children went to bed on time and the laundry got done. The dishes found their way into the dishwasher. I had the satisfaction of watching my family eat a hot, home-cooked meal. I reveled in the completion of mundane tasks like cleaning the entire kitchen floor without hearing, “Mom, I accidentally broke this glow stick open and it stained my shirt. And it tastes kinda weird.” It was a good 14 days. I had sleep, I had time, and I had sanity. I pooped when I wanted. I wasn’t at work for the best part of my kids’ day. And I wasn’t exhausted by 5:30 pm.
But now, once again, he’s gone. And the end of most of my “single” mom working days are spent wallowing in the horrifying realization that I accomplished roughly half of what I actually set out to do. I always attempt to make up for this perceived sloth in the last hour of the day. I scurry madly around the portions of the house visible to the public, picking up Lego landmines, trashing the faded macaroni art (yes, I toss 90% of these – sue me), and trying to make a visible dent in the mail or the trash or the dishes or the dust or the odd smell coming from the vicinity of the refrigerator. I punctuate this frenzied ritual with my nightly scream up the stairs, “YOU’RE USING ALL THE HOT WATER! GET OUT!”
By the time my kids are tucked in for the night, I have usually been informed at least twice that I am mean. The most common source of this animus is my never-ending mandate that the bathtub be drained. Every night they leave it full of water, and every night someone has to reach their hand into the cold dirty-foam water to unplug it. Every night that someone is not me. And ipso facto, I am mean.
So I’m not always friendly by the time we get to the nightly tuck-in. I am often focused on minimizing the length of the evening’s routine, and coveting the moments that will follow when they finally fall asleep and I have a moment to myself. And so I am sitting on my deck, listening to the sound of night falling in my beautiful quiet little town, and getting up the courage to discover what kind of overflowing watery mess awaits me upstairs.
I trudge up the stairs to find The Preschooler in his Superman jammies, perched on his bed. I am shocked. He’s really a different kid without his sister around, who is away at camp this week. It’s amazing what he can do when he’s not being harangued by his morality boss. (He is not-so-secretly hoping she is gone for good. When she said goodbye, he asked me how many years she’d be gone. He had apparently confused “camp” with “college.”)
I find the bathtub full of water. I demand resolution. I get called “so mean.” I feel fulfilled.
I attempt to avenge my own good name by tucking him in tightly and praying out loud with him: “God, please forgive me for being such a horrible mean mother who always forces her children to do such terrible things as draining the bathtub upon bath completion. I am truly sorry that I would expect my children to do such complicated things as to flip the drain on their way out of the tub, and I pray you would help someone invent a self-draining bathtub so they would never have to experience such a tragic injustice ever again, so long as they live. Amen.”
The Preschooler glares at me over his hands which are still in the “prayer” position. It’s a little sad that I know my six year-old understands the term “tragic injustice” and can use it in context. But I’m sure God gets my sarcasm, so I feel no guilt whatsoever. I’m eager to break out of my mean-mommyness, and suggest a goodnight song.
The Preschooler loves this. And really, so do I. Singing is part of my secret past. The kids know nothing about the brief time that I sang with “Hip Pocket,” a jazzy-ish band that managed to get two coffee shop gigs and a political rally before disbanding. Our main claim to fame was a super mellow beat driven by a former drummer for Strawberry Alarmclock. I was truly a legend in my own mind.
The Preschooler picks the Lawrence Welk “Goodnight Song,” which is not exactly in my repertoire, but I know it well enough to fake it thanks to Lauren and Dana, babysitting sisters that used to sing this song to my kids. My favorite part comes at the end when you sing “goodbye” in Spanish, French, and German. I always close my eyes and remember the puffy little cheeks of Sweet Pea, who was tought to sing, “adios, ara-voo, our feet are the same!” She had such small red lips back then. When I open my eyes and look at The Preschooler, there is this bittersweet moment where I see the years slipping away.
His, not mine.
I float around doing my best pastel chiffon-clad Lawrence Welk Lady and I finish the closing salvo with a twirl of my skirts. Then, like the singing professional that I am, I ask whether I can fill any other special requests for the delightful members of our studio audience. I peruse my studio audience, which now consists of a giggling preschooler with a new high and tight, two stuffed dinosaurs, one bear, one camel that arrived from the Middle East smelling like cumin (his name is “spicy”), a Blue Angel that makes after-burner sounds, a light saber, a National Geographic Kids Magazine, and the parts of what look to be approximately two Transformers.
“You Are My Sunshine!” shouts the Transformer torso via its preschool ventriloquist.
I smile. This is one of those songs we always sang on the road when I was a kid, and we could have four-part harmony going all the way to the Grand Canyon, much to my parents’ disappointment, I’m sure. I turn the lights down and I kneel next to the bed. I have happy memories associated with the singing of this song, so I’m bobbing my head back and forth as I sing it again to The Preschooler, thinking of the brown station wagon with the wood paneling that somehow managed to survive our family adventures.
“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
The Preschooler lays down parallel to his light saber and reaches out to me as I sing. He finds my hand and pulls it close to him. Without really interrupting he mouths the words, “I love you, Mommy.”
My heart melts. I wince thinking that I had any ill thoughts whatsoever about the length and breadth of the tuck-in ritual after a long day at work. I think to myself, this is where life happens – right here. My voice softens and it is becoming more of a lullaby.
“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms …”
How long will this sweet face say such things to me in the dark? How many more nights will he really let me sing to him at all? I’m so foolish, sometimes. I feel horribly guilty. I am happy he is so forgiving.
“When I awoke dear, I was mistaken, so I hung my head and I cried. You are my sunshine …”
Suddenly, The Preschooler hugs my hand tighter, pressing it hard against his chest. His closed eyes clench tighter, wrinkles stretching out from the corners of his eyes, and one eye crease squirts out a tear that races down his cheek unexpectedly. His eyebrows and the corners of his mouth draw down into a strained, pained face of regret. Such a sad face for such a young soul.
I stop singing and ask him what’s wrong. I can barely understand the squeak of an answer that comes out. He finally manages, “She wakes up, and he’s not there. What happened to him?”
I guess I never really paid attention to the words. I mentally sing it back to myself. “It’s just a dream. She thinks he is there, and that makes her happy, but then she wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. That’s all.” But the significance of this to a child whose father is far away strikes me and I wish he had chosen a different song. We are clearly past the point of salvage now, but I attempt to turn the conversation anyway.
“Do you dream sometimes?”
I’m hoping this will lead into a conversation about how he recently defeated the lizard king with the help of Captain Weird, the martian-chicken. He dreams vividly, and I know this. I know this because he talks and he runs and he laughs and he shoots and he
slaps and he kicks in his sleep. And Captain Weird makes frequent cameo appearances, from what I can tell.
“Yes, Mama. I do. I dream of you. And I dream of Daddy.” He pushes his little eyelids together tightly again to keep his tears at bay and I know what he isn’t saying. I realize I’m gripping his hand a little too tightly.
“Mama, how long has it been since Daddy left?”
I release my tight grip and I smile gently. The Preschooler and I always seem to have the same thoughts. It’s like he was in my head moments before, as I lamented the stark difference between life with and without Husband. I smile because I realize this is yet another one of those moments where the words about to come out of my mouth are exactly the words I myself need to hear. Gah. It’s always that way.
But I have nothing. My smile fades a little and I stare into the dark for a moment.
I’m apparently tired of dispensing advice to myself. My answers are becoming pat and I don’t believe them any more. The analogy department is closed for the night. “Two weeks,” is all I can say. And I blink.
Then, in that absence of response, in the inability to process and created something inspirational, something amazing happens.
I see the resiliency in his eyes, right away. I recognize it. I remember as a military kid feeling like I could do anything, survive anything. The hard moments hurt, but I knew the sun would come up the next day because, by experience, it always did. If I could just put this day away, a new one would pop up. Guaranteed. Every time.
I look and I realize I’m not the resilient kid this time. He is. I watch as he wipes his own tear away with the backside of his hand and adjusts his head softly on the pillow. He closes his eyes. He rolls over.
“So tomorrow will be two weeks and one day?”
I open the covers and climb in still wearing my work clothes, and I cuddle him. We are two spoons. As I wrap the covers around us I say “Yes, it will be. And the day after that will be two weeks and two days.” And then we just lay there together in his bed for a very long time, quiet and still. He doesn’t know that I cry quietly. And I fall asleep as the dishes and the laundry and the kitchen floor wait patiently downstairs. The news is still blaring from the TV and the plates are stacked by the sink and the screen door to the deck stands wide open. But for now, I will stay here and watch his day fade away. For now, I will take him to the next sunrise.
And together, instead of counting the sunsets, we will keep looking for the next sunrise. And the next one. And the next one … until we are all back together in one big family heap, singing at bedtime … “our feet are the same.”
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