4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I’ve been reading about writing; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and now Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It’s a sort of self-imposed syllabus, otherwise called, If Only Yale Had Actually Had a Writing Major: A Mid-Life Crisis. I drag the books around with me, to the beach, to the sidelines of soccer practice, to bed. In all honesty, the Stephen King and Anne Lamott have been on my nightstand for years. Maybe decades. (Fat lot of good they’ve done me so far.)
But I mean it this time, I do.
I scratch away at them, a sunscreen smudged paragraph at a time, reading and re-reading pages trying to get back to the place on the page where I was before someone small punched someone slightly smaller in the sternum and interrupted me.
This afternoon I sat on the beach with Francine Prose in hand and watched as my son huffed and sulked his way across the beach, distracting me from the Cheever quote I was supposed to be inspecting for gorgeous sentences. My husband had nearly spirited my son off for the day to keep him company as he prepared for big meetings next week, holed up in a library somewhere. “I’m so sad he chose a day at the library over a day at the beach,” I whined via text. “Potentially only three or four beach days left this summer,” I added, one might say, passive aggressively.
So my husband turned the car around and deposited a disgruntled boy with me. He could have had Dad to himself. And a book! In the library! Maybe lunch out! And now here he was, left to yet another sticky, sandy day at the beach, cold saltwater, annoying siblings and worst of all… Mom. He had been tragically cheated. And by then, we all had.
Eventually he shook the malaise, swam with me out past the boats (although he complained of hypothermia all the way back in) and then paddled around the cove on my paddle board. It was a compromise, I could tell. But for me it was another sad loss. Summer, nearly over. My son choosing my husband but being stuck with me. Alas.
After we returned from the beach, through a series of misfortunes involving a game of Kinder Bunnies and a time out punishment for trash talk, another child broke a window, the expensive kind. I found the vandal outside, head in hands.
“I was trying to throw the ball over the shed,” they whispered.
“But you hit the window. That’s not even halfway over the shed. How could you miss by soooo much?’ It was the question we’ve all been asking since time immortal.
“I knooooooow,” they wailed.
How do any of us miss by so much? Marching along, each day exhausted, hungering for the start of school so I can finally get writing and art done. But, but, but. At the end of August with just days to go I keep thinking, only three more beach days left, eight more years before they’re no longer at my side. Maybe sooner. It’s all just so fast. Breakneck.
People we haven’t seen for awhile comment on how my children have grown. I say it’s magic how they’ve grown older but we have not, and yet the truth is laid bare all around us. Clearly the size 3 sneakers no longer fit. Any of them. Because time has passed. And no amount of blithely marching along in a midlife crisis bikini like I’m a Housewife of New Jersey will deny that fact. I’m 47. I slather sunscreen on the skin cancer I’ve put off cutting off until September. Because… summer. There is a finite number of summer days, swimming in the cove, yelling at them to put on life jackets… or sunscreen. Time, you see. It has passed for me, too.
“Do you ever think about the lives of the other people in the cars and how they never think of us?” one budding philosopher asked yesterday.
“Do you ever think about how someday you’ll be forty-seven and I’ll be dead?” I may have replied.
It’s like that. In the midst of wanting them to leave me alone so I can finish reading the page in Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer where she quotes Tim OBrien’s The Things They Carried, they bring me to exactly this moment where I’m sitting across from my daughter as she reads Miss Rumphius aloud, swatting away mosquitos and stumbling over words like wharves and Bapa Raja.
But then suddenly as I watch my daughter, I’m struck by the memory of reading The Things They Carried for the first time myself. I was sitting at a table in the high school library waiting for the other class officers to arrive for our morning meeting. It was a revelation, all the mud and death and stark beauty, it took me away from everything while marking in my memory exactly where I was. I remember that moment reading Tim O’Brien for the first time vividly, viscerally. Do you see what time does? How it circles around like that?
Except I just looked up The Things They Carried and it was published in 1990, my first year of college. I couldn’t possibly have been in high school when I read it. Don’t you see?
This too will all warp or go away, every bit of it, the glint of her hair as she leans over Miss Rumphius mouthing words to herself and the beautiful child with the broken window, the rose hips and stomping feet and thrown books. It will all pass. And I will have all the time in the world to read Francine Prose’s book. But someday I will think that I read it one winter sitting before the fire when I was living at the monastery teaching my first class of students. Even though it was published in 2006 over 20 years after I drove away from the monastery forever.
And I still won’t have learned how to write a true sentence. And they will be 47 years old and busy with their own children and their own expensive broken windows. And I will be dead. Or a ghastly sliced up version of myself having lost so much skin to the dermatologist that I appear to be something out of Edward Scissorhands, alas.
August. Goddamn August.
Eventually my husband returned home from the library, and we had fish for dinner. And then he spirited off the oldest boy for a consolation prize Patriots Dad Date while I cuddled with the other three in a hanging tree tent in the darkness, wrapped in blankets, watching The Smurfs on an iPad.
And when they returned, they unzipped the tent and said it was time.
So we ran through the neighbor’s yard in underwear or pajamas, dragging towels, fumbling by the light of the full moon. We lay down our clothing, iPhones and Fitbits by the water’s edge. Took off glasses and pajamas or whatever could weigh us down, and we stumbled out into the water.
“There’s sparkles in the water!” my daughter called out, a shadow in the darkness.
Then my husband set down his little speaker and played Aretha Franklin, her voice rising up over the cove.
In various states of undress we six swam in the water, by the light of the moon and surrounded by ocean phosphorescence, holding hands, buoyed by the salt and the eternal sound of Aretha and August.
There it is, the perfect sentence- The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.
I have to believe that deep in our very fibers, there are some things we will carry with us always.
Forever and ever
You’ll stay in my heart
And I will love you
Forever and ever
We never will part
Oh, how I love you
That’s how it must be
to live without you
Would only mean heartbreak for me…
My darling believe me,
For me there is no one but you.