There Is No Why

© 2012 Whitney Reed

© 2012 Whitney Reed

Saturday morning, I made a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits with my own six-year-old. Just the two of us. She sang in her room just beyond the kitchen as I cried into the bowl of broken egg guts and cursed the bits of shell that fell in. I believe everybody was hit more than once, the words of the Chief Medical Examiner have been ringing in my ears. And because I can’t encounter any piece of news without taking it on myself, injecting it into my own heart, I could only imagine her little overalls, her hands, her sweet brave forehead, her perched on a bathroom sink by a teacher who barricaded her class into the bathroom while gunshots fired in the next room, across the hall, who knows where.

I’ve been so overcome, I took her to the aquarium today. Because, really, there’s nothing more peaceful than an aquarium. It’s otherworldly. Creatures floating in water all around, and people, swarms of people, sharing moments of laughter and wonder behind a sheet of glass. It was raining when we left. Who would know? On the way home, Ruthie asked me, “What’s it like to be a grown-up?” And I thought, THIS. This is what it’s like to be a grown up. It has something to do with knowledge, and loss, and love, and what to do with all of that, but I didn’t tell her this of course. I told her it meant you could eat ice cream for breakfast if you wanted to.

I remember when Ruthie was first born, our first outing. She was maybe 3 weeks old. I don’t know, maybe a month. I can’t even remember where we went, but there were other babies there with their own mothers, some of them crying. And I remember I could feel their cries in my gut. I physically reacted to them–looking to my own Ruthie’s peaceful face with panicked confusion. But you don’t LOOK like you’re crying. And this is what I feel like we are all doing about Newtown–we are owning their pain, their loss, because it feels like it is OUR loss. And it is unimaginable. That is one of the most painful, most beautiful things about us humans: It’s primal, our connection to one another.

We can talk about gun control, we can talk about how we should provide more resources to the mentally ill, how we should call our representatives, and how we should pray more. And, you know, I’m not saying those things aren’t important. But the truth is that bad things happen for no good reason. All of these articles about the shooter and his mother… and WHY. We’re all asking why. Why are we asking why? Because if we can understand it, then maybe we can control it. And, sure, there are things we could do, measures we could take, but the truth is that bad things do happen for no good reason. And this is what makes us hug our babies tighter and kiss their hairlines, breathing deep, thankful and sad at the same time.

I was a teacher for seven years and I can’t imagine what I would say to my students tomorrow morning if I had to face them. I’ve been a mother for just as long and, thankfully, I haven’t had to talk about it to my own little girl. It’s been a silent, very grown up kind of suffering these past few days. But if I had to explain it to anyone, I’d fall back on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, which is really a good policy in any given situation, because I like his focus. He says:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Holding someone’s hand is always a great place to start. Or tell the people you love that you love them. Sing the hero’s song. Cry a little. Send love. Good, human, hearty love. Pay attention to all the awesome shit that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe turn your phone off and admire the tower your six-year-old made out of 52 Jenga blocks straight up. Shore those fragments against the ruin, T.S. Eliot style. Or maybe just wash her favorite pair of overalls every night this week so she can wear them every day. I know in this house, we’ll be eating ice cream for breakfast tomorrow morning. With fruit, of course. It’ll be a few more days before I can bear another broken egg.

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Quiet Teeth

© 2011 David Parker

I discovered my own teeth in my mother’s jewelry box when I was seven. I kept it a secret, not wanting to ask why she had them because I didn’t want to hear her speak the words to me: I am the Tooth Fairy. As if words make things true.

I remember visiting my dad’s dental office in the weeks that followed–my brother and I would run through the hall donning face masks, popping gloves at each other. In the lab there was a wall full of tiny drawers that held hundreds of mouths cast in white and yellow. Impressions. So many teeth. And it seemed almost impossible that the world could contain all of the teeth that had ever fallen out to make room for the teeth living in peoples’ mouths. I could think only of my own quiet teeth tucked away in a drawer among my mother’s large and loudly colored earrings of the early nineties. Standing before that wall of teeth, I was overwhelmed by how many trips the tooth fairy didn’t make.

Curious, though, is that I don’t have a single memory attached to losing any teeth. I can remember the way they felt against my tongue when they were loose, I can remember the holes they left behind, but I cannot remember losing a tooth. I know the Tooth Fairy visited me, but I can’t pin down a specific memory of it. So the Tooth Fairy didn’t become important to me, really, until it became an un-truth.

I don’t know if it began the day I made that discovery in my mother’s jewelry box, or maybe I discovered the teeth because of something inside of me, but it is true that for a long time, I’ve been looking everywhere–sifting through my sent mail, digging in the glove compartment, checking my coat pockets, opening drawers long-closed, picking up water glasses and searching through them from the bottom. Where is the un-truth? Or, when did what was true–so true–become un-true?

Last night, Ruthie lost her tooth at dinner and ate it. So we drew the Tooth Fairy a map of where in her belly it might be, and, after she’d fallen asleep, I stepped inside this un-truth as I deposited two dollars under her pillow. She was disappointed the fairy got away without leaving a trail of fairy dust behind. I was relieved that there were no teeth to hide.

The Amber Moment

© 2011 David Parker

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” [Kurt Vonnegut]

I’ve discovered that I am most present with what is not here. I am the kind of person who longs for. Who savors. Who stockpiles hotel keys, t-shirts left behind. Who, as a child, licked the bowl, the spoon, the bottom of the just-cooled skillet my grandmother used to make her chocolate icing. Who saves letters not for the words they contain but for the handwriting, for the hands that brushed the page.

I linger. I want everything, but especially this, to last. Preservation, proof, posterity: these are the things I write for.

I spent my teenage years and my early twenties fascinated by home videos and pictures of myself as a child. I seemed so quiet and so calm–not words I’d use to describe myself now. My favorite album was the one that contained images from the first weeks of my life–Mom in the hospital bed holding me with (strangely) a clown behind her, Dad with his socks pulled up balancing me on one arm (I was so small my head fit into the palm of his hand and he’d hold me out like you might hold a crystal ball), my granddaddy so young his hair was dark. Ruthie, too, is captivated by the video of her first days. We’re enthralled, I think, by the love we see our baby-selves receive. Now that I’m a parent, I know that as we grow, that love doesn’t diminish, but it does become less apparent as we become less dependent. And so maybe, what drives us back to those first days is a longing for something we’re not so sure about, a longing for what we miss.

Every time Ruthie leaves for the weekend, she comes home someone else. More precocious, taller with hair on her legs, smelling like grass and dirt, saying things like “Let’s just not talk about that” when we begin to disagree. She disagrees. Unafraid of worms, lizards, frogs, she fears apocalyptic things like earthquakes, floods, jellyfish in the bathtub. She tells secrets, has secrets, makes up stories for the books she can’t read yet. And every night I regret the words I failed to put on the page to preserve the person she was today, the questions she asked: Are we human?

And in 20 years, in a month, five days, tomorrow, I will miss this. Through my doorway, Ruthie strolls past eating cheese with her stuffed elephant. Lately, she has decided that it’s best to fall asleep holding hands with me. On the way to the grocery store the other day, she said she wished there was no gravity so we could float everywhere. I said I felt like floating takes too long–sometimes I want to go FAST. She thought for a moment and then decided, “Okay. I wish for gravity. But I also wish for wings.” And it occurred to me that wings are kind of a celebration of gravity–without gravity, flying isn’t special. The past and the present, living and writing, have the same kind of relationship to me–the one celebrating the other.

Belated: Xamp Xmas

Xamp Xmas began as a kind of reclusive, experimental approach to the holidays that grew from my dread of spending the holidays without Ruthie. Without my little buddy, Christmas just felt ridiculous. She spent ten days with her father, and I decided to spend those ten days quietly and without all the bustle and hustle–no presents, no parties, no long trips home, no big family dinners. I allowed my days to be enveloped by a growing entropy that made time pass in strange, unmarked ways. The experience was relaxing, like living in the eye of a storm.

Armed with documentaries I’d been wanting to see and books I’d been meaning to read, Xamp Xmas was a generally cozy experience, though there were parts of it that were hard. Since I would get Ruthie back on the 26th, her dad decided to “do Christmas” a few days early so she’d have time to play with her toys and stuff. So Ruthie called me on December 22 to wish me a Merry Christmas. When Ruthie called on “Christmas morning,” I was up in Atlanta hiding out during the days while David worked. Something about that phone call made me feel sad deep down in my marrow. I hated that I didn’t get to set out her presents, that I didn’t get to wake her up and see that sleepy, swollen excitement leap into her eyes, that I didn’t know until I spoke to her on the phone that Santa was bringing her a guinea pig (which would be a lovely pet for her to keep at her father’s house). I hung up the phone with her and was overwhelmed by the desire to be a part of the holidays. So I jumped in the shower and headed to the MECCA of Christmas: Lenox Mall.

Traffic was a mess. I had to valet park. Ten freaking dollars. Clusters of people were waiting for their cars with their hands full of bags bloated with the “perfect presents.” Inside, the mall was positively vibrating with “Christmas spirit,” which felt manic. I walked from one end of the mall to the other, found a restaurant and had a mojito while I read a book. I felt ridiculous. The mayhem, the bright lights, the noise, the energy all felt so arbitrary. All of these people were fighting to cram in their shopping ahead of time while my baby girl was having her Christmas day NOW. The hype, the energy, the mania–all of it was disorienting.

That night, I picked up David from work and told him about my day–how I’d talked to Ruthie, how she’d gotten a guinea pig, how I’d gone to Lenox Mall, how I’d drunk a mojito next to a woman at the bar who didn’t speak English, how terribly cliche the experience of being a single parent without her child on Christmas had felt. I perked up when he affirmed that indeed, that did sound depressing and suggested we do take out for dinner. So we watched the Banksy film and ate a quiet dinner of Pad Thai, the unopened fortune cookies between us holding some kind of promise that felt warm and comforting to me. My cookie reminded me not to rush into things, his promised wealth and opportunity. A good night.

Christmas Eve, we made white-chocolate-covered pretzels with sprinkles and watched half a dozen movies that weren’t “Christmas” movies, but that were set during the holiday season: Die Hard, Ghostbusters 2, Batman Returns. We walked across the street and had dinner, and declared this a most excellent Christmas Eve. My family was in Colorado skiing, and, though I missed them, I was perfectly content to be sitting next to my favorite guy eating a white truffle chicken salad sandwich and sipping on a “Ruby Slipper” (a drink with rosemary syrup that tastes like Christmas). And herein lies the paradoxical emotional experience of the single parent: that you can miss your kid so completely, so deeply, that it settles like a stone caught in the bottom of your gut; and that you can, at the very same time, enjoy (down to the tips of your toes) the quiet adult time you are granted because of her absence. It’s a complicated, confusing, often enriching experience that makes me truly appreciate both the time I have with her and the time I have to myself.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a dead car battery, which, with the help of AAA, we overcame. We schlepped to David’s parents’ house two hours away for an early Christmas dinner. Their warm house and the mimosas we drank were a relief to me. Our dinner was quietly festive and warm. I had decided not to join my parents and brothers on their trip to Colorado, and, though I didn’t regret my decision, I felt sad when my dad called me that afternoon. He’d decided to call it quits earlier in the day than everyone else, and I felt a pang as I realized that, if I’d been there, I’d be sitting next to him drinking a beer and looking out at the snow and the mountains. I could hear the distance in his voice so many miles away on this, the first Christmas I’d spent away from him in 28 years. The presents my family had shipped to me before they left emphasized that distance–humbled by the brown paper packaging, the lip gloss and old holiday movies my brothers sent me were particularly touching. The simplicity of those gifts–two or three thoughtful items– made me appreciate why we give gifts at all. Because “the perfect gift,” at any time of year, reminds us that we are understood, that the people we love and care most for “get us.”

The thing I loved the most about Xamp Xmas was its balance. It was the perfect mixture of holiday and rest. Rather than being a time marked by obligation and chaos, it was a time rooted in the present and marked by gratitude.

A Friday Folds Into Itself And Falls Away

© 2010 David Parker

Friday afternoons, I begin to breathe. I’m sitting outside with a beer that is quickly turning warm waiting on a friend whom I refer to as Aunt Bea and whose kindness always overwhelms me. She’s the type that still mails cards (you know, with stamps). And while she’s stuck in Game Day traffic, I have the opportunity to talk to another friend who is going through one of those times that makes me want to reach through the phone and press my hand into hers and just squeeze I’m here. But I’m not there, I’m here, drinking a beer and watching a young man who dines alone awkwardly make conversation with the older woman sitting near him waiting on her party. To his burger, he says, You never let me down. I’m thinking I can’t even live up to that hamburger with my friend on the phone so far away and me doing that thing I always do when I don’t know what to say, which is to say nothing except I love you because what else is there to say.

Around the time I get off the phone, Aunt Bea has arrived, ruddy-cheeked and grinning. We eat and drink and have one of those conversations that can only happen when you’re both on the same page moving at the same speed through your lives. By the time we leave, I’m sweating and a bit too full. And as I pull into the driveway, I’m overcome by that lonely, sinking feeling I get when I realize that Ruthie’s at her dad’s house for the weekend. It’s a feeling that always surprises me, because I expect to feel relief, but it’s a long time falling asleep the first night she’s gone.

Magic Mittens

© 2010 David Parker

Someone very close, very dear, and very lovely came up to me the other day and confessed to feeling totally defeated and I imagined myself reaching into this person’s heart with a glowing-ember mitten that could fix it. Whenever people I love feel uncomfortable or sad or lonely or left out or hurt or misunderstood or awkward (especially awkward) or if they’re just struggling in general, I have this overwhelming desire to slip inside their bodies and feel it instead. Because something about my temperament already feels it anyways.

Tonight, Ruthie and I took a walk before bedtime and on the way back to the house, we stopped to talk to one of my former students and her friend. Ruthie ran around behind me and began licking the back of my arm like a kitten. I guess we’ve entered that strange developmental stage where children both want attention and shy away from it, which causes them to resort to strange behaviors. I tried not to make a big thing about it, but, I mean, if it happens again, I need to have something ready for explaining why we can’t do this. She’s terribly precocious and it’s painful for me to watch her grow into becoming self-conscious because I know how uncomfortable that felt when I was a little kid and even now. I realize that discomfort is necessary for developing as a person, but even still, I think I’m going to ask for one of those mitten-thingys for my birthday. Or for Christmas–Santa Clause may have a bit more pull than my friends and family when it comes to producing magic things to heal hearts.

My Child is Possessed by the Grocery Store

© 2010 David Parker

What is it with kids and the grocery store? I can remember my mom always saying (in a low growl), “THIS is why I hate bringing y’all to the grocery store.” And it was because we asked for everything and we fought and ran down aisles ahead of her. And now, apparently, it’s payback time.

Like today, my otherwise calm and generally compliant child became positively possessed upon entering the grocery store. I had to go for our lunches tomorrow. It was around 4:30, which I knew would be crazy, and I would’ve gone earlier, but I didn’t want to get Ruthie too late from school. I should’ve just gotten her late from school. Here’s how it went:

me: RUTHIE! Stop. Jumping. It’s too crowded, kid.

Ruthie: (braces her hands against the glass case at the deli counter where all the meat is displayed, kicks both legs straight out like a donkey-kick) Kay, Mom! Just one more!

me: (still calm, but trying to order meat at the same time) No, buddy. Now.

Ruthie: (nails an old woman’s grocery cart) Al-rrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Gah!

me: (apologizing to the lady, grabbing for Ruthie’s wrist) Okay! That’s it for us! C’mon.

Ruthie: (wiggling out of my grasp) DON’T HURT ME, MOMMY! (starts jumping on one leg)

me: (taking on the low growl I learned from my mother) Ruthie! Quit. Jumping.

Ruthie: (still jumping, starts whining loudly) But I’m just doing it with one leeeeh-heeeeeg.

me: (sweating, fierce whisper) YOU must not want any of these marshmellows. (Snatch bag of marshmellows from the cart, shove them in Ruthie’s face so she can smell their sugary sweetness)

Ruthie: (takes 3 cleansing breaths) I’m calm now, Mama. I’m CAAAALLLLM! (Now she’s yelling again)

We head for the check out, where Ruthie takes a handful of gum packages and throws them on the ground. I pretend I don’t see. I manage to pay while Ruthie calls my name over and over again. WhitneyWhitneyWhitneyWhitneyWhitney. We get our cart and Ruthie flies out in front of me. I grab her wrist. We’ve almost made it out the door when a rough-looking old woman berates me for not letting Ruthie get any of the free ice cream Kroger was apparently offering on your way out the door. Even if I’d known they were offering it, I wouldn’t be stopping for any now.

rough-looking woman: Awww, Mommy. Get her some ice cream. It’s FREEEEE. Don’t be a mean mommy.

Seriously? Parenting advice on my way out of Kroger with my little heathen barely wrangled in tow? Seriously. On a Monday. At 5:00. At the GROCERY STORE.

And as soon as we get home, Ruthie’s totally chill. She plays in her room, makes up songs, asks me sweetly if I’ll please get her some Capri Sun. We ended up having a nice dinner at the table together and talked about the solar system.