“Mama! Can I make you a mermaid? Please! Please! Please!” my daughter shouts.
I try to protest, but before a single word can fight it’s way out of my lips, she’s dumping damp sand on my thighs. It’s not even nine in the morning. Sweat is dribbling down my forehead and into my eyes, catching sunscreen along the way. Behind my oversized sunglasses, my eyeballs are on fire. I have no way to relieve them, because everything is covered in sand.
I lean over to grab my magazine, but who am I kidding? I’m a mom at the beach. No time for reading. My husband is half watching the kids, half playing Corn hole. I toss the latest HGTV mag back in my beach bag, overflowing with swim diapers and neon-colored plastic sand toys.
Instead, I take a sip of my mimosa. I swallow, praying for the chill of the champagne to mellow me out, but at the end there’s a mouthful of grit. Sand in my drink!
“All done, Mommy!” my daughter exclaims. “You’re such a pretty mermaid!”
I’m buried up to my waist. Wet sand is in places it has no business being. I’m sweaty and thirsty. And I definitely don’t feel pretty.
“Smile, Hun!” my husband shouts. He suddenly has his phone out. I don’t have time to stop him, only time to suck in my gut before the click. “That’s going on Facebook,” he laughs.
My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.
She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.
I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.
I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.
“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”
I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.
“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”
Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”
I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.
We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?
My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door. Was it God? Was it my own conscience? “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.
I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.
I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.
Before his stroke, Grandpa was my favorite. I would sit on his belly, round like Santa’s, and ask him if the battery above his heart hurt. I’d lightly press my fingers against the square shape protruding from his chest, and Grandpa would smile wide, toothlessly.
“Naw, Baby Girl. That’s my ticker,” he’d say. I imagined a tiny clock inside his chest, sort of like the Tin Man.
Grandpa was a self-proclaimed botanist, without using so many words. He planted tomatoes and other vegetables, mostly for canning to keep Grandma and him fed through the harsh winter months when the junkyard didn’t need his help sorting metals. I used to walk behind him. I watched Grandpa whisper to his green babies and touch the leaves carefully. He taught me about them, but I can’t remember his lessons.
After my grandpa’s stroke, between first and second grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They owned a duplex, and we lived on the second floor so my mom could care for him.
There were times I wanted to climb back on his belly, but Grandpa’s new oxygen tank made my belly do flips. I thought I could catch whatever was making him so sick. If I get too close, I’ll need one of those tubes in my nose too.
I don’t have a single picture of the stairs in my grandparents’ house, but I remember them perfectly in my mind: hand carved wood painted the same shade of red as fallen leaves just before they turn brown and crumble. I wasn’t allowed to play outside, so when I wanted to get away from everyone I would sit on the landing. I could hear my mom on the phone above and my grandparents’ television below. I sat there playing with dolls or staring at the cracks and chips in the yellow walls pretending they were a part of a roadmap to someplace magical where Grandpa wasn’t ill.
His ticker stopped that autumn. I was in school when it happened. He was there when I left and gone when I got home, crumbled and blown away with the leaves.
All I kept thinking was that I didn’t get a chance to hug him once more, or to really listen to his lessons.
This year, I planted an herb and vegetable garden. It’s nothing like Grandpa’s, small in comparison. I thought about him while I was out there with my hands in the dirt. I touched the plants with care like he used to. Small bits of food have managed to grow, regardless of my natural knack for killing anything green. Although, some of them are limp, hanging on for dear life. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or right for that matter. If only I could remember what he taught me.
I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.
My mom died.
My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.
I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.
The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong.
The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.
My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand.
After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.
Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun. It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.
It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.
I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.
I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.
In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.
On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”
My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.
It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.
I should’ve climbed out of the boat when Captain Ron’s doppelgänger had me sign my life away on that little piece of paper, but I didn’t.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “We make sure we take you far enough out to sea.”
Far enough for what? I should’ve thought. But not a single alarm went off in my brain.
Why? I’ll blame it on the blue drink.
We were on vacation in St. Thomas and I couldn’t just sit there on the beach and relax. NOOOO. I wanted excitement and action.
So, after our second day of lounging around on the sand, my husband and I looked into fun island activities.
“How about parasailing?” Justin asked.
“Sounds great!” I exclaimed.
Truthfully, I had no idea what parasailing was, but it sounded leisurely and fun. I thought perhaps it would include me sipping a special island cocktail on a boat, letting my hair get tousled in the salty breeze.
Boy, was I was wrong.
“Why am I signing this?” I asked. The contract mentioned things about death and injury. DEATH! What?! “Are you sure this is safe?” I asked Captain Ron.
“Dude we do this all the time. You should be fine.”
“Should?” I asked. “Well that’s relieving.” Justin and I were new parents. We had a four-month-old daughter at home and all I could think about was leaving her parentless.
Despite my fear, I signed the contract. After that, Captain Ron suited us up with strappy, blue contraptions that went over our shoulders and under our butts. Then he attached some ropes to what looked like a parachute.
The only things that would be keeping me from the sharks were a thin piece of fabric, some rope and a couple of buckles.
“Crap!” I said. “Do we have to do this?”
“We’ll be fine, Danielle,” said my husband. But I think he was trying to convince himself more than me, judging by the crackle in his voice.
“Sit down, legs straight out in front,” said Captain Ron. I listened and quickly assembled myself on the boat floor. The boat accelerated and before I was ready to fly, we were airborne. At first, it was alright. We were hovering just above the boat and the ocean sparkled like a blanket covered in loose diamonds.
“This is nice,” I said as I looked around at the green Caribbean Islands. I liked the way they sliced between the waves.
The boat accelerated again, and I felt a
pang of nausea. Suddenly we went from comfortably high to OMFG. The boat wasn’t more than a dot below us. The rope seemed so impossibly thin and possibly frayed, and I was certain it would rip at any second.
Clearly, I was having the time of my life.
Actually I hated it.
I thought I was going to vomit and die from choking on my puke midair just before my rope had a chance to completely unravel and send me plummeting to the ocean below where I would, instead, be savagely ripped to death by the sharks I couldn’t see.
“Smile for the camera,” my husband said. I squinted my eyes and opened my mouth to expose my teeth, but it didn’t resemble a smile.
“Try and have a good time,” said Justin.
“But I’m terrified!” I whimpered.
“Just try,” he repeated. I tried. And I tried. And it didn’t happen.
Instead, I closed my eyes and waited for it all to be over while I whined like a puppy dangling over a pit of hungry lions.
“Hey,” said my husband. “He’s lowering us. You can open your eyes now.”
I opened my eyes and saw that we were definitely being lowered. But we were also coming in fast and hot. The boat was getting bigger and bigger. The ocean waves were getting closer to the tips of my toes; it didn’t seem like we’d make it. I braced myself, because there was no way this would be a Southwest Airlines clap-your-hands kind of landing. No.
To. An. Abrupt. Stop.
My ass slammed against the boat floor and left bruises for days.
“Sorry about the rough landing, dudes,” said Captain Ron.
I was so happy to see solid-ish ground that I didn’t care about my sore bottom.
“No worries,” I said. I’d had enough excitement and action for the rest of the trip. “Just get me off this boat and give me another blue drink.”
Slumped beneath the weight of her backpack, my daughter slinked from the school bus steps. Her ocean-blue eyes had faded to stormy skies and her skin was muted.
“How was your day?” I asked. I was concerned. Most days she raced off the steps with a grin so wide her eyes were shut. This day, she didn’t even wave.
“Fine,” she said. The word pushed out of her lips unwillingly, like the last puff of air leaving a balloon. She was deflated.
“Are you sure?” I pressed.
“Yep.” I watched her kick an invisible rock across the driveway.
“You know what?” I said as I cupped my hand around her small shoulder. “I think we should get some ice cream.”
“Really?” she stopped and looked up to me, squinting her eyes against the sun. I realized, in that moment, how fragile she still was. “Before dinner?”
“Yep,” I winked. “Let me get my keys.”
Ten minutes later, we were sitting at the table with bowls of pink frozen yogurt in front of us and I asked again, “Is everything alright, Hun? Did you have a bad day?”
My daughter stuffed her spoon deep into her cardboard bowl and swallowed a mouthful of creamy treat. “Sorta,” she shrugged.
I lowered my eyes to meet hers, pushed my bowl aside, and whispered, “wanna tell me about it?”
She looked away and tears started to gush from her eyes. “Mama, they chased me,” she sobbed. “I wanted to collect rocks and they chased me.” Her chest heaved, catching breath in spurts, and every bit of my heart crumbled.
“Who chased you, Hun?” I scooted my chair closer and wrapped my arms around her. I prayed that somewhere in my embrace she’d find strength, and a that my arms would take her sadness so I could store it under my own skin.
“My friends at recess,” she pressed against my heart like she did as a baby and continued to bawl. “I just needed some alone time.”
“Aww Sweetie, I think you were so brave for standing up for yourself. It can be hard to not give into the pressure of our friends,” I encouraged my daughter and inflated her balloon.
“I don’t know,” she said, then looked down at her sparkle-covered sneakers.
“Trust me. Sometimes our friends don’t understand when we need personal space,” I explained. “We have to tell them when we need to be left alone.”
“I did that Mama, but they kept chasing me!” she stuffed a spoonful of frozen yogurt into her mouth and wiped her face with her shirtsleeve. The parent in me wanted to scold her for staining her shirt, but the mother in me couldn’t. Instead, I handed her a sticky napkin to wipe the tears beneath her eyes.
Conversation comes easy for my little girl when she’s with family, but sometimes large groups of people drain her batteries. An only child for the first five years of her life, my daughter recognized at an early age that alone time helps her recharge. It’s especially necessary during the flurry of a long school day, when staying focused is so important.
“I know it can be frustrating. I need my personal space, too.” I took her soft cheek into my hand. “I get grumpy if I don’t have time to just be quiet and write each day.”
“Really?” she asked.
It is my job, as a mother, to ensure my daughter has enough air in her balloon, enough confidence, to succeed.
“Really,” I said. “Just keep reminding them. And if they don’t get it, it will be okay. At least you know what’s best for you.” I half-hugged her shoulder, then took a bit of my melted yogurt. “Mmm! Is this tomato flavor?”
My daughter laughed and straightened the slump in her shoulders. “Mama, you’re so silly. It’s strawberry!”