Name one thing gay marriage could possibly open the door to that would be more depraved than thrice-wed, craven-mouthed Charlie Sheen down on one rickety knee, proposing to “best friend and soulmate,” 24-yr-old porn star Someone Something-or-Other.
I am worried. Worried about the Olympics, the possibility of a terrorist attack. Worried about Philip Seymour Hoffman, already dead, I know. Worried about Dylan Farrow, and worried that it doesn’t undo Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Worried at my desk, pausing instinctively as I hear too many sirens, an animal frozen by scent, imagining my children hidden in a school broom closet just down the hill, just out of reach.
Yet I’m oddly unworried, floating backward on this conveyer belt into what I’m told will be a “very loud” machine, an MRI for these headaches that plague me each day. The sounds are loud, unbelievably so, but I feel good, safe in a moment where all I can do is surrender to stillness, close my eyes and breathe.
On the drive to this antiseptic office complex, miles up the highway, I peek at my phone and see that my daughter has left a trembly, breathy voicemail, then a panicky, all-caps text (the teenage equivalent of screaming “MOMMY!”), about a group video project she’s accidentally left at home, “in the computer, or somewhere around there.” It’s due next period.
I realize I’ve taken the wrong exit, distracted, in rush hour traffic, and my underarms begin to sweat. I worry that my daughter’s grade will be docked, worry more that her partner’s grade will be docked. I worry that I can’t bail her out this time, worry that saving her so many times before is the reason for this latest irresponsibility. I worry that I’m beginning to stink, that I forgot to bring cash for the pay lot, that I’ll be late for my appointment window. And then it hits me: I am actually looking forward to this MRI.
I’m not being flippant. I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, I don’t think MRIs are funny, and I would never discount the experiences of those who’ve undergone diagnostic procedures with devastating results. But right now, I relish the idea of relinquishing control, abdicating responsibility, being temporarily out of commission.
When the kids were little (the oldest was six when our fourth was born), I used to fantasize about being hospitalized. Not for anything serious, just a minor accident, maybe the painless removal of some obscure, unnecessary organ — anything to get away, somewhere I couldn’t conceivably be expected to look after anyone else — vacation, minus the guilt.
Things have changed a lot since those days. For new stay-at-home moms, there’s still the Sisyphean monotony of feeding, dressing, changing, bathing, soothing, and bedding an infant, but for all of us, it’s not so isolating now, with smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and mom blogs connecting frustrated, flabbergasted, fawning mothers the world over. It’s never been the sort of job you would telephone about anyway: “Hey! What’s up? I’m goo— look, here’s the thing: I’d rather chop off my own head than spoon one more bite of clumpy rice cereal into a slobbering maw.” But you can say exactly that on the internet, as its sole basis for existence is connection, assuring us with the tap of a screen and the prayer of anonymity that we are not alone.
This has opened up the world in ways that are sometimes wonderful — I helped fund surgery for a child I previously would never have known existed — but often not so great — I learned about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the bathroom floor and the needle in his arm, before half his relatives had been notified.
It’s tough to know what’s worth passing on, things that would normally exist in the realm of personal triumphs or tragedies. I was moved yesterday, clicking on an image from Anne Frank’s rediscovered toys, a simple tin of colorful marbles. It felt significant, a poignant stand-in for innocence lost then regained through the power of prose. But do I feel a similar need to leaf through the details of Paul Walker’s will, discover what Hoffman ate for lunch the day he died, or watch a viral clip of a hotel maid, surprised by a generous tip, bills splayed beneath a lifted top sheet for maximum titillation? Sometimes even the good things I don’t want to know.
I try to breathe evenly through my nose, and I think of my husband, how the atonal droning of the MRI sounds like the avant garde music he loves and I loathe, how I could make him a mixed tape of my brain scan for Valentine’s, how years of heated art-or-noise arguments resurface here, in a tube, where I’m fighting only the urge to laugh. Would it show up on a technician’s screen, my amusement, this history inside my head? So many things that can never be known, about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Walker, about Anne Frank and me, no matter how much we choose to share or who pores over images of our brains.
My right ear mimics the machine’s bleeps and grinds, echoing in staticky feedback; my hearing on this side is distorted, like a dial stuck between radio stations, but this doesn’t concern me. Instead, I remember the ugly yellow polka-dot glider stationed in the upstairs hall, the hardened, curdy spitup I cleaned from its blond wood slats the day before we set it on the curb, relieved and ready to move on to the next phase. How an inconsolable baby, in the endless black of a newborn night, squawked with such force and determination that my right ear turned to fuzz and I cried, exhausted, convinced of a brain tumor that would leave my children motherless.
I worried then, shushing and rubbing this tiny infant’s back, how I’d ever pump enough milk to sustain her after I’d gone. I worried she’d go hungry even as she spewed chalky milk over my shoulder, down the unseen back of the glider. I worried, sniffing her skull, aching for the things I’d miss, until we both fell asleep, upright. And I dreamed of a nurse pull cord, just down the bed, just out of reach.
Mom, I love you so,
you do so much,
and know one seems to no.
But for every chore and every sweep,
I will give you my love in one big heap.
Mom, I know I need a lot
so I will give you my love,
because that’s what I got.
"I’m just now getting in the Christmas spirit, Mom — you know? I feel like it should be Christmas now."
It’s mid-January, in the car, and I nod at my oldest daughter — I do know. She starts singing a Christmas song, willing time backwards, and I try to join in, but it’s a Justin Bieber song I know nothing about except that he says “shawty” a lot. She gives me a look as I trail off, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or making fun of me. The teenage years have dropped over us like a heavy blanket, insular and suffocating, and I’d like to kick them off, screaming.
"So what does ‘shawty’ mean, anyway?" I say, to prove I’m still participating. I’m familiar now with this daily log walk between riverbanks, between nosy and not listening, caring too much and not caring enough. "Um, I don’t know. It’s just like saying ‘honey’ or something, like he likes her or whatever." Aud leans over, pulling the tangled fishing line of headphones from her new bag, a Christmas gift with a print of a black cat and the word "noir" stamped above it. She toted it around for nearly a month before asking what the word meant, another weird characteristic of the age, curious about everything and nothing. I see that we’re done, so I try the backseat.
"Hey Sadie, I saw they’re making a new show about ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a series, like about Dorothy? But it’s supposed to be kind of dark…probably not for you anyway." She’s 11, and still interested. "Who plays Dorothy again? I forget her name." "You mean the movie? Judy Garland! She’s great — isn’t she great? Don’t you like her?"
Too polite yet to roll her eyes, she offers a noncommittal, “Yeah, I guess. Is she dead?” ”Oh, yeah,” I say, “dead for a long time. She tried so hard, though, worked really hard to please, but she had kind of a rough life — lots of drugs and alcohol, studio people always telling her she was too fat, not pretty enough, gross stuff like that.” I glance sideways at Aud, who harbors acting ambitions, to see if my cautions register, but she’s staring at herself in the sideview mirror and mouthing lyrics to some unheard song, the star of her own mind video.
"How old was she, though? Like old?" asks Sadie. I tell her I’m not sure, maybe late 50s, so she seizes my phone with that strange modern fervor for instantly proving people wrong, and discovers that Garland died just 12 days after her 47th birthday. She does some calculations and raises an eyebrow, laughing: "So Mommy, that makes her just 18 days older than you when she died!”
This stings more than it should, and I feel a ridiculous kinship with the deceased, as Sadie goes on to report that Ray Bolger, Scarecrow to Garland’s Dorothy, shook his head and sighed at her funeral: “She just plain wore out.” I consider this for my tombstone, and immediately begin to cheer up.
"Oh, Mommy! You used to sing that song to me all the time when we were little. Remember? You used to sing it all the time!" Fudge is nodding in the very back, pleased by his contribution to the conversation. He’s eight, the baby, and used to being left out. "Oh yeah!" I say. “You mean ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? I did used to sing that a lot — I’d forgotten!”
And I had. The little one always gets the shaft in a big family. I hardly read to him anymore, much less sing to him every night as I tuck him in. I feel the usual twist of guilt in my chest — I’ll do better! — but I already know it’s a lie. Our life is jam-packed, and songs will always be the first to go.
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", as sung by Judy Garland, is one of the clearest-eyed songs around, nothing like the cheery pop versions you’ll hear today, the difference between Joni MItchell and Amy Grant singing "Paved Paradise". Garland sings about loss and longing, change and inevitability, and if you watch her, she wears an almost flat expression, resigned but not dejected. She’s comforting a child, but they both know it’s fantasy. There’s not a smile in sight.
And that’s the way it is, kids. Fast, difficult, special even when it’s not. The myth of a trouble-free future is no more real than the myth of an untroubled past. It’s all slightly out of key, misremembered lyrics, a soothing hand in the dark.
So give me one more second before you go, shawties. Because I thought I was plain wore out, but it turns out I’m just now getting in the spirit.
Creepiest middle-of-the-night experience ever. Wake up a little before 4:00 a.m. and head to the bathroom, where gradually it dawns on me I’m hearing a man’s deep, droning voice somewhere inside my house. It’s deathly still otherwise, pitch black, everyone asleep but me.
I feel my way down the hall, then down the stairs, cold with fear but unable to resist moving toward the sound. I lean around the kitchen doorway, and there, across the open floor plan, above the living room fireplace, on a TV that was decidedly turned off before bed, is a silver-combed man, Southern and insistent, in an outdated blue suit, a deeper blue curtain drawn behind him, sitting at a desk cleared of all but a single, old-fashioned table microphone.
He’s pointing one thick, bullying finger at what seems to be me, quoting fiery scripture on accountability and thundering on about condemnation. I stare up at him, powerless and terrified, the accused before the judge, when the screen goes suddenly black, then just as suddenly back to the man, black and to the man again, as if he’s willing himself there, conjuring this court and conviction into my living room.
My eye catches movement over the sofa back — is that a head? — a child? But no, no child would dare lie in the dark here like this, alone with this harbinger of doom. Unless they were possessed…a possessed child, maybe?
Oh — no, it’s only Floyd. Thank God for Floyd, though I notice with alarm he seems just as scared as me. My brain kicks in and I begin searching for the remote, the man shouting above us then silenced, shouting then silenced. And at last, I understand.
"MOVE, Floyd!!!" I yell, shoving at him, digging through fat and fur until finally I locate the remote underneath his rear. Once the house is quiet, I start to feel sorry for him, so I go back and give him a reassuring hug, whispering that the mean man’s all gone now. He settles in, and I head back up the silent staircase, accountable to no one.