Gas tank: full. Cell phone: charged. iPod: stocked. I drive up I-70 toward the mountains. A decision of classic, spontaneous impulsion on my part. Once I’ve decided I want to do something, I want to do it today. This is no exception.
Robb and I weren’t a perfect match. We were different in every way. But maybe the differences make the perfect match. He liked a planned agenda; I thrive on spontaneity. He was a filer. He put everything in its place. I am a piler, and I can’t find anything once it leaves my hands. He liked to visit the same restaurants and order favorite dishes; I like to try new places and taste new things. He went to bed at the same time every night, just after the nightly weather report at 9:17 p.m.; I come alive at night, often thinking and writing and creating into the early morning hours. He was deeply invested in the decisions of the government and any election; I am apolitical and often handed him my ballot since it mattered so much more to him. He believed in the thrill of competition; I enjoy the commercials and believe in the gracious social merits of the game. I always have a book in my hands; he was nonliterate. Not illiterate, but nonliterate; he hated to read. We parented differently. I read books, conduct Internet research, post on parenting blogs, and study consequences based on love and logic. He wrestled on the floor, tickled and roughhoused, and earned respect by saying things like, “Dude, just obey. I’ve pooped bigger than you.”
But we both loved road trips and loud music on the iPod. (I like mine louder than he preferred.) We loved having people in our home (although I could quickly and seamlessly add a chair to our dinner table while he preferred a guest list in advance). We both loved serving people; I would listen and learn their favorites and their fears, while he
would grab his tool belt and fix any problem at hand.
Years ago I stopped trying to make us match—him the same as me, me the same as him. I learned that his relationships, although far less verbal, were in no way inferior to mine; they were just different. His experiences and his preferences were different from mine, but they were equally valuable. The ways he chose to love me were, in fact,
loving me. The face of love depends on one’s willingness to understand two vernaculars of the same language. We were not the same.
We didn’t always understand each other. And we made a great team. In the passenger’s seat is the white paper bag with handles. It looks like it could come from a candle shop or a quaint boutique. No one might guess that it holds the canister of my husband’s ashes.
I drive on a two-lane road that becomes more winding, less crowded, and finally utterly secluded as I arrive at a lake just below the mountain’s highest elevation. I turn off the car. I step out. The air is crisp and silent. I button my coat, grab the handles of the white bag, and click the remote to lock the car as I walk toward the water.
I Will Love You Forever
Life was rich. No matter what the future held, this was a marvelous moment.
—Madeleine L’Engle, Two-Part Invention
As I scrambled with the many dishes on the stove and in the microwave, two-year-old Tyler cried because he wanted to sit in his chair, twenty-five minutes before it was time to eat. Four-year-old Tucker needed, needed, needed to be in the kitchen with me, standing at my feet, asking to help.
Please. Help. Please.
Tyler wanted to be held. Then Tyler wanted to wear his Superman shirt. It could not be found. He could not think of eating without it, so he organized a search party, looking high and low. When we found it, he didn’t want to wear it. He put on a Power Ranger costume instead. Meanwhile, Tucker endlessly blew the pinwheel he had made at preschool, sending spit flying all over everything and everyone. That’s fun, just before dinner.
The kitchen door opened from the garage, and the familiar jangle of car keys exploded into boisterous, joyful shouting. “Daddy! Daddy!” The boys tumbled over each other in their race to greet Robb, which became a fest of shoving and blaming and claiming. I stood by the stove, stirring the spanish rice to accompany the chicken enchiladas in the oven. I watched the greeting unfold, aware of two things: he was finally home to help referee such scenes, and we would have our own hello once the hubbub settled. I could leave them to their wrestling match. Sure enough, they dispersed as quickly as they had commenced, spinning and bouncing like pinballs.
“Hey, babe,” he said as he came behind me, one hand on my waist, one hand holding the mail. I gave him a quick kiss over my shoulder.
“Hi, love. Welcome home. How was work?”
“Eh, you know. Work.” He flipped through the mail, sorting the wheat from the chaff. “How was the day here?”
“Eh, you know. It was the day here.” I pulled the enchiladas out of the oven, balancing the casserole dish in one hand, clicking the beeping timer off with the other hand, and giving a quick, upward exhale to blow my bangs out of my eyes.
“Anything you need help with before dinner?”
“Yes, you can pour drinks and have them go potty and wash their hands.” (Perhaps in another life stage I won’t say “potty.” Lots of grownups say “bathroom”—so I’ve heard.)
“Boys! Go potty and wash your hands! Time for dinner!” He headed up the stairs and returned in a frayed T-shirt and athletic shorts. He wore shorts 350 days of the year, even when there was snow on the ground.
Robb and I had a silly joke between us. About trivets. Really, that’s what marriages are made of: silly little nothings that add up to a decade of important somethings. As you probably know, a trivet is the little doodad that goes under a hot plate or dish to keep the heat from scorching your table or countertop. Robb insisted on calling it a trinket. I insisted on calling it by its name, trivet.
I carried the hot dish to the table. “Could you hand me a trivet?”
“You mean a trinket?”
“No. I mean a trivet.”
“Sure, babe. Here you go. Here’s your trinket.”
“Thank you for the trivet.”
We did this, I kid you not, every single time one of us set the table for dinner. It was a nightly dialogue, a playful banter. The trinket/trivet debate. One night he said, “You know, when I’m dead and gone, you’ll look at that trinket and smile. You’ll remember me, and you’ll call it a trinket.”
“Doubt it.” Lower my vocabulary standards? Hard to wrap my mind around that.
The dinner scene unfolded with arguments over washing hands with soap and water versus sanitizer and whether dinnertime is an appropriate opportunity for such shortcuts. There were spilled drinks and excessive napkins. Any semblance of real conversation was replaced instead with interruptions and incomplete sentences. Someone wise once said, “Where two or more are gathered, someone will spill his milk.” I envisioned my family dinner table looking so much more collected than this.
Tyler didn’t want to eat at all; he simply wanted out of his chair. No dice, kiddo. You have to take the three obligatory “thank-you bites.” That’s the rule. And he could have his share of yogurt and grapes. I support the idea of children eating what the adults are having, but sometimes I don’t want to argue and negotiate every bite of the one meal we all eat together each day. Some might call me a short-order cook. I’m willing to risk the name calling. I prefer to describe myself as a mom who doesn’t want to argue incessantly and in the end throw away food that her son doesn’t want to eat. Bring on the kid-friendly side dishes.
Tucker got in trouble for shouting potty words at the table. He didn’t need to go. He just thinks he is hysterically funny. We try to discourage these syllables as appropriate dinner conversation, so he spent a few minutes in time-out.
Robb tossed in some adult humor for me—his teammate and captive audience. “Listen, Tucker. We need to redefine your mission statement. There is about to be some corporate restructuring around here, and I don’t think you’ll be pleased with your performance review.” I smile in spite of myself; I couldn’t have said it better. Time for a disciplinary action plan, I’m pretty sure. We’ll consult with the board.
Oh, wait. We are the board.
“Tuck, when you’re ready to use polite words, you can come back.”
“Can I come back now?”
“Are you ready to use polite words?”
“Then you can keep sitting on the steps.”
Tyler had no interest in dinner, his meal, his chair, or his life as he knew it. He wanted Mommy. In his whiniest, most tearful voice, he cried for me. Since I was enjoying my enchiladas, as much as I could in such an environment, Robb tried to encourage him to eat instead. “Tyler, can you eat your chicken? This is Daddy’s favorite chicken. Very favorite. Taste it.”
“No. Mommy. Mommy, mommy, mommy.” Cry, cry, cry.
Tucker announced from the living room: “I’m ready now.”
“Okay, come join us.”
He announced upon his arrival that he had to go potty now. Robb and I exchanged glances over the table: to allow or not to allow? We were still freshly out of the potty-training graduation ceremony, so we were reluctant to keep the boy from going when he said he had to go. Go. Now. Quickly. Then eat. Now. Go.
Tucker yelled from the bathroom, “Soap! Soap! SSOOOAP!” It was hard to know if he was yelling at us or at the soap. Especially since he didn’t need a single bit of assistance when I arrived at his side to help him reach the soap. He was fine, thanks.
Enchiladas, anyone? Are you kidding me? Is it time for bed yet? And then the negotiations started. Because try as I may, dinner almost always ends with a negotiation.
“Boys who eat their dinner can have a cookie.”
“I want a cookie!”
“Did you eat your dinner?”
“Then no cookie.”
“But I want a cookie!”
“Eat your grapes or your chicken.”
“I want a cookie.”
“I want Mommy!”
I want a stiff drink.
Robb raised his voice above the din. “Boys, enough. Mommy fixed this dinner for you. Stop complaining. Start eating.” What is it about the dad’s voice? It evokes a moment of trepidation, just enough to make them remember who’s boss. He is. And he says I am.
In an adult moment above it all, I whispered to him, nearly in pig Latin, “I made chocolate raspberry trifle for dessert. I’m not sure they’ve earned it. I’m pretty sure we have. After their baths and bedtime, let’s eat it. Just us.” In the end they didn’t eat their dinners, chicken and grapes notwithstanding, so they didn’t get their cookies. But we held the promise of delayed gratification: our dessert to come after bedtime. Everything tastes better after bedtime.
After dinner we took a family walk around the neighborhood, down the street and around the corner to the path with the mountain view. With four wheels and a handle, our sturdy Radio Flyer had a large capacity: jackets, sunscreen, water bottles, one boy or two climbing in and out, the ever-growing collection of rocks and pine cones, and alternating rhythms of whining and laughing. We put a lot of miles on those four wheels, one evening stroll at a time.
We arrived home once more, and after the choreographed tag team of baths (Robb handled the bubbles, soap, and shampoo while I handled the fluffy hooded towels and the jammies); after the goodnight songs, the bedtime stories, and one hearty round of “I’m thankful for” (Robb was thankful for me, I was thankful for umbrellas, Tucker was thankful for his soccer ball, and Tyler was thankful for crinkly, wrinkly eyeballs); after the prayers and kisses and glasses of water and night-lights and more water and the list of just-one-more things, they were in bed.
I came slowly down the stairs, feeling spent and poured out, wishing I could muster more energy to stay up late and maximize the remaining quiet moments of the day.
He unfolded his reclining chair and opened his arms. “Come here, baby girl.”
I climbed, knees first, into his chair, then turned myself to find the spot that had taken us a while to map out, the one I’ve now known for years—the nook-and-cranny puzzle pieces that fit the two of us into a chair made for one. He groaned as I sat down on his lap, as if the bulky weight of me were too much to hold. One of his favorite jokes.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that when I sit on you.”
“I was just being funny.”
“Well, that’s not funny.”
“You’re grumpy,” he teased.
I craned my neck to look at him.
“Yes, it’s possible that I am. You’ve been here for slightly more than one hour of this day, thank you very much, and I have spent the entire day navigating an obstacle course in which I am Public Enemy Number One. What you saw tonight was only one of today’s meals. At lunch today Tyler was angry because he didn’t want me to cut his spaghetti noodles. But he doesn’t know how to eat them otherwise, so then he was also angry because he was hungry. During the same meal Tucker was just as angry. I don’t really know why; it’s hard to keep track. At naptime Tucker was angry again because I wouldn’t let him jump on the bed. Simultaneously, Tyler was irate because he couldn’t wear his shoes to bed. I found both of them running across the length of the coffee table and launching themselves into my chair. Olympic training, right here.” I pointed to the coffee table, their running track.
“Do you know something else? At one point I actually heard myself tell Tyler that I didn’t like him very much today. I told him I didn’t like him! For crying out loud, who was the adult in that situation, anyway? ‘I don’t like you,’ I said. My mom coached me through that one. She said, ‘He doesn’t understand yet. You’ll want to change that sentence by the time he’s five. For now, it bounces right off.’ Apparently her own mother used to say she was going to give her back to the Indians. So I guess it’s all relative. Still, I earned no points for Mother of the Year today. This day had angry written all over it. So, yes, perhaps I am grumpy. And by the way, you didn’t exactly keep your cool at the dinner table tonight, either.”
He pulled my shoulder gently into the crook of his arm, softening me. He rested his scruffy chin on my head. We fit so perfectly. My voice quieted. “I’m pretty sure they will be disappointed tomorrow when they wake up to learn I am still their mom and I still live here.” With my ear against his chest, I listened to the vibrations of his voice. “Well, I’m glad you live here. You’re stuck with me. And them.” “Thank you. You’re not allowed out of this.”
“Neither are you, baby girl.” He poked my knee for emphasis and then rested his hand on the curve of my worn, gray sweatpants. “They’re in bed now anyway. At the end of the day, they always go to bed.” “In bed” is relative. I could still hear Tucker making that silly clicking sound in his throat, which he had just discovered and was abundantly proud of. “In bed” is not asleep. But it is a step in the right direction.
“Can we just be quiet, please?” I asked Robb, immune to the irony that I had been the one doing all the talking in that most recent tirade.
“Can I watch baseball?”
“Can I read my book?”
“Um…yes.” Isn’t that what we’ve all been waiting for?
With dessert served in the deep ice cream bowls we found on clearance at Kohl’s, I moved back to my own chair—the oversized, comfier, more realistic place for me to sit for the duration of the night. Several chapters and innings later, it was time for the weather segment of the evening news—9:17 every night. Robb moonlighted as a closet meteorologist. He had installed two weather stations in our home, apps on his phone, and updates on his desktop. He was routinely one click away from the five-day forecast. I found this nicely helpful in my decisions about shoes and cute cardigans, since I would otherwise pay no attention to the weather until I was uncomfortable enough to notice it.
My goodness. Sometimes we seem so old. What happened to the two who watched movies late into the night and boasted the occasional 2 a.m. run to Taco Bell? We used to have more to say to each other. Dinner conversations, chats on that walk around the neighborhood, pillow talk late at night—we always had a few more things to say. Where have those conversations gone? Are we too comfortable? Are we too familiar? Maybe we’re just too tired.
He followed his meticulous routine of locking every door, turning off each light, then double-checking that each door was locked. Leaving him all the practical tasks, I checked on the sleeping little boys. I straightened this one’s blanket and found that one’s teddy bear. I stroked the tall one’s head; I rubbed the small one’s back. I kissed this one’s fingers, that one’s eyelids.
I breathed a prayer over them. “God, arm them with strength. Make their way perfect.”
Little do they know that I love nothing more than them. They are as big as I love.