4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
“You know which one was my favorite, don’t you?” I asked my husband as we sat side by side last night catching up on Ray Donovan. We’d paused the episode (which later left us both crying over (spoiler alert) Abby’s prone body) and were scrolling through the news feed on our phones.
“He’s not dead,” I said.
“I think he is,” my husband replied.
“This is the apocalypse, you know,” I replied. “This is the fourth horseman. Pestilence, War, Famine and now Tom Petty.”
It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t meant to be. It just feels like too much. Houston, Puerto Rico, Florida, Dominica, Mexico, Las Vegas, Syria, Myanmar. Like when I was a kid in Sunday school each week, or sitting through the hour long Sunday sermons, or later in confirmation classes, we learned about the end of times. About how sins would pile up and the whole thing would collapse in on itself, the scales of balance would shift and dump everything to the floor to be judged and trampled on by an angry god.
Add Tom Petty and it becomes personal. You don’t have to have visited those places yourself or to know any of those people to know, it’s out there lurking in the darkness waiting for us all, a Mad Hatter at a table with an enormous tea cup in his hand.
Freefallin’ is my favorite Tom Petty song, perhaps in the top three favorite songs of all time for me. It’s the very first song on my Jen’s Mix which includes my top 62 favorite songs of all time.
Just as American Girl could not be destroyed by the Silence of the Lambs, Freefallin’ could not even be destroyed by the college boyfriend who I thought I would marry but who left me for a 16-year-old camp counselor the summer after my freshman year of college.
We returned in the fall and I went to a dorm coffeehouse and he was up there in the band strumming the bass and singing. How in the world was it possible that he was there and I here and there was no connection between us at all whatsoever anymore? I thought. It was like gravity had ceased to exist, or maybe that the force of gravity had suddenly doubled to 20 m/s². And I couldn’t believe how heavy the world felt or how badly my heart hurt. I never even knew he played the bass, I thought. The pain was nearly a physical thing as I nursed the injury of a broken heart, certain that the world would never be right again.
She’s a good girl, loves her Mama
Loves Jesus and America, too
She’s a good girl, crazy bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend, too…
And I’m a bad boy, cause I don’t even miss her
And I’m a bad boy, for breakin’ her heart
Last year my husband and I sat with a financial advisor having a belated conversation about our lives, our future, and providing for our children. In order to center us she asked us to do an activity.
“Take a piece of paper and answer each question,” she said. “If you knew you only had 10 years to live, what would you do differently? And what would be your regrets?”
Then she asked us to narrow our focus and give ourselves a year. Then she gave us a day.
It was a sobering activity. Surprisingly none was sadder or more anxiety inducing than the ten year one. There were so many big plans I wanted to jam into those 10 years. I wanted to travel places I’d never been, I wanted to never be mean to my children again, I wanted to write them each a book and then write another book for the whole world to read.
The regret I wrote down made my eyes sting as I wrote it. “I never left a mark.”
It seemed as if I’d never gone hard enough at any one thing to have done anything of record. No book finished, no artwork published in books or featured on a museum wall. There was nothing to show for having been here and ten years was hardly enough time to do it all.
But, when I narrowed it down to a year, I wanted less. I wanted more time with my family, I wanted to be more present in the world and in nature and in my body.
And when I narrowed it down to one day I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted any old lovely summer Saturday. I wanted to sleep in with my husband and stare out at the summer sun. I would wait for my children to climb into bed with me to wake me up. I would eat fried egg whites and bacon and a scone even though I’m allergic because I’d be dead before the choking kicked in.
I think maybe I’d still do a power yoga in the morning on the mat next to my husband while the kids mimicked us with sloppy downward dogs and shirtless triangle poses. I would paddleboard, go for a walk, eat bratwurst and peppers for dinner cooked on a camp stove on the beach and dance around to Ed Sheeran’s Castle on a Hill. This is a summer day I have all the time, an amalgam of lovely summer days in fact, and if you exchange cross country skiing for paddle boarding and a dinner in front of the fire watching Fixer Upper eating chicken potpie for Ed Sheeran on the beach, it’s the day we have all year round, at least on weekends and holidays.
There was something to taking the largesse of regret and grief trudging over a decade and narrowing it down to an unpretentious year, then an exquisitely humble day.
This weekend I went to a memorial service of a colleague of my husband’s. He was 85 years old, had just retired in the spring, and then died suddenly a mere two months later, surrounded by family, on an island in Maine.
His memorial service was one of the most beautiful things I’ve sat through, held in a quaint little New England chapel in which he never set foot. There were people standing in the aisles and out the door and into the rain, many seated in a neighboring gymnasium listening to the service played out over speakers. He was a veteran of the Korean War, a Harvard graduate, a Columbia-trained lawyer, a man who was on a team that tried a case before the Supreme Court. He did all that until he was 60. And then he retired and became a teacher of constitutional law at a small high school, making unprepared students cower and others who doubted their ability rise up to achieve things they never thought they could. He carried the constitution in his pocket every day and inspired others to do the same.
I marveled at that transition, from practicing constitutional law out on the world stage, to a small classroom and an intrepid band of sloppy, warrior adolescents willing to slog their way through the most difficult class they would ever take. There was choked laughter at his curmudgeonly ways, his sharp wit, his irrefutable fire.
The moment that brought me finally to tears though was when his wife described their inner life, their relationship to the world around them and each other, the marshes and the tides, the easterly wind that continued to blow even during the rainy, dreary funeral, the sand and the migration of great blue herons and red-winged blackbirds they’d watch together, and the rise and fall of the tides on which they sailed, guided by the moon. In all his sharp-tongued wisdom and grunts of assessment, of course he’d found the central thing.
The world is a hard place. I am overwhelmed with images of houses smashed to match sticks with power lines strewn around like so many knotted necklaces in a box. I am numbed by the clip played over and over of gunfire from an automatic weapon, the likes of which I’m not entirely sure even belongs in a war situation let alone in a pile in a man’s living room somewhere in Nevada. And I’m sickened and infuriated daily by the man this country has elected to speak for us, who slaps us with tweets rather than mindfully finding the words to say something meaningful, and then quotes words of scripture as if those words guide him as he walks through this world. (As if.)
In the dark hours of early morning, amidst shooter news and Puerto Rico, I read the news officially, Tom Petty is gone.
I stood with my husband in the darkness as the sun slowly rose over the trees and we contorted, creaking and groaning, into half moons and warriors, upward dogs and child poses. Then I walked upstairs to my sons’ new bedroom. I crawled into first the bottom bunk and snuggled over my oldest, kissing him on the head, smelling the Irish Spring in his hair still left from a shower two days ago. And then I climbed up into the top bunk and into a sea of sweaty fleece blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals, piled deeper than the railings around the sides of his bunk. I nestled my face into his neck and kissed his lips and nose, still so tiny and sharp, even as his body grows gangly and knobby-kneed.
I climbed down and helped them make their beds. “There’s more sad news today. You know the man who sings that song mama loves, Freefallin’?”
“Yes. He died last night.”
“Was he shot?” one of them asked.
“No. His heart just stopped.”
“His heart broke?”
Yes, it did. Perhaps everyone’s has.
Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out, all alone
And the sun went down, as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Well the good old days may not return
And the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn
Well some say life will break you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out, for god knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there