When I was in the second grade my mom bought me the coolest shirt ever. It was around 1980 and I was eight and mostly didn’t care what I wore. But this day was different, this day I was gonna wear the pink cotton poets’ shirt with my burgundy pants and my tall brown boots. That shirt felt awesome on me, soft and girly with two ties that hung down from the opening at the neck and a zig zag stitch that gathered the bottom hem. I felt stylish in that shirt, and super cool. I imagined myself turning dramatically on the play ground like I was in the opening sequence for a TV drama, like Charlie’s Angels or Dallas. I chose one very sleek and sophisticated ponytail rather than the more childish two pony tails. In my vision I probably down played my buck teeth, oversized glasses and uber thin frame. I was Wonder Woman.
I attended 2nd grade in one of the most rural and socio-economically deprived counties in the state of South Carolina. It was just a pond skip beyond the 1970s which means culturally (read: racially) it was more like the 50s. I recall the time the Klan marched right by our school. I remember looking back as those ghost like figures topped a hill just beyond our school playground. Teachers rushed us inside. I was frightened, but I didn’t know why. No one talked about it, we just missed recess that day.
The school was built decades before I arrived on that sunny day clad in my coolest of cool attire. The students had long since outgrown the size of the original buildings and portable trailers had been added on top of the dusty red clay behind the school. Covered walkways served as outdoor hallways connecting various entrances to the brick building.
On this day, as I walked through the crowded walkway I heard a voice from the top of the stairs call my name. Believing that it must be an admirer I turned to see who desired my attention. It was a dirty, stringy haired blond girl who I didn’t know well, but I must have upset her in some 8 year old way that day. Perhaps I made her laugh and chocolate milk came out of her nose and embarrassed her. Whatever the reason, she called out at the top of her tiny dirty voice ” donkey!” To me, star of an unnamed tv drama!? So I did what any scrappy (and well dressed) 8 year old would do. I turned around and shouted back “donkey!” This went back and forth a few times until it occurred to me that I had continued to walk backwards while taunting her. So I turned quickly around in order to get back in my class’ line. Unfortunately it was at that very moment that one of the support beams for the covered walkway happened to be directly and unavoidably in my path. I crashed face first hard into that pole. Blood exploded from my nose and mouth.
My poor mother worked at the school and they quickly called her into the bathroom where I had been rushed. There I stood covered in blood, my mother gasped, not knowing where the blood stopped and my mangled face began. Blood dripped profusely down onto my favorite shirt.
I got to go home early and convalesce on my sofa, defeated in what felt like my finest hour. I iced my nose and fat lip for what remained of the day, probably fortunate that nothing was broken or required stitching. The last time I saw the coolest shirt ever it was floating in a plastic tub full of cloudy water. The bloodstains never came out. It was a sharp reminder that I would be many things throughout my life but cool was probably never going to be one of them.
Today is the last day of school. When you are a single parent, school serves as the other parent, taking the children and caring for them (except for the weekly cold one of my children will inevitably develop) 5 days a week, from 9-3. Summer comes and gobbles that up. The unstructured days of summer loom in front of me more vast and endless appearing than the Grand Canyon. Oh sure there are camps and eager grandparents, but as a parent and especially as a single parent, it’s the day in, day out that strikes fear in my heart. The bickering mocks tauntingly already. An argument about whether they argue about everything or not threatens to shake my sanity to its very core. BTW I am horrible at superimposing a contrived schedule. I want to. Hell, I need to, but it’s a struggle. And it’s really not nearly so catastrophic once we get into the swing of things, but the transition from here to there is frightening. What will I do about it? Admit I’m helpless over summer….ask forgiveness to those I have hurt because of summer…write about it in my blog. Sigh. Fret. Make too many plans with friends and family. And as always get through with the help of the village we live in. Come Labor Day I will probably write a blog about where all the time went so quickly. Ill worry about how we will adjust to having to get up in the morning and wish we had more wide open spaces of time.
Today’s post is inspired by an article my friend JL posted on Facebook this morning about girl’s school dress codes. When i was in junior high school i was all limbs, particularly legs. The school dress code dictated that your skirt had to be longer than your middle finger when standing with your hands by your side. Mine weren’t. Mainly because I would grow a quarter of an inch between eating breakfast and getting on the bus. My skirt probably started out long enough, but by lunch time it wasn’t. So I got pulled out of science class one day to go up to the office for an official measurement. It was degrading. And it was explained to me that it was distracting, which I knew already. That’s why I was wearing it. To distract. I was being denied my right to manipulate and control the fragile male adolescent. Plus I was being told I couldn’t do something that I wanted to do and I hate that.
As an adult I appreciate the experience on a much deeper level. This is the kind of attitude that keeps women in burkas and out of schools altogether. I’m not tying to get on an illogical slippery slope where all my rights are on the verge of being taken away because girls are not able to show cleavage at the prom. But this is indicative of an under current in our society. Who has responsibility for bad behavior? Why is all the responsibility placed on women to eliminate opportunities for bad behavior? Why are we not teaching young men to respect women? Why do we assume men are not capable of respecting women? We can’t give men control of the entire world, and then give them a free pass when a woman is wearing a strapless dress. It’s insulting to men and to women.
What would happen if we began to see women’s bodies as works of art, beautiful curves and lines that are appreciated for their form and function. This is not to take away from the person as a whole, but to change our attitude about how we see women. Women are beautiful. It’s fine to appreciate that. If its distracting it should be up to you to get focused.
Before you respond….I know these are generalizations about men and women. There are men and women who already respect each other and are not only responsible, but are teaching their children to be responsible. This is about the need for a cultural shift, a recognition that these policies reinforce an outdated and unhealthy attitude. And if you walk away with one thought let it be this…we are all better off when we treat each other with responsibility and respect. Women are better off and men are better off.
It’s hard to appreciate how much energy it takes to just grieve the loss of a person and how difficult soldiering on is. Grieving is exhausting. Part of the process for me is trying to be supportive for my three daughters as well. Some nights it feels like I am a single parent of newborn triplets, except it’s a cry that will not be quieted by a bottle or diaper change. Much like most of us, my three girls push through the day using their energy to appear “normal”. Showing “negative” emotions is uncomfortable for other people. So they walk around with their brave faces on and that takes energy. By dinnertime the disguise is becoming weary and the grief starts demanding to be paid attention to, a hungry baby that must be fed. The girls do the best they can to function pushing through to the end of the day. Then they attempt to sleep. They are exhausted, but the brain is ready to focus on what has been ignored all day. Anxieties pop up, tears. If they are able to sleep they are haunted by bad dreams and fitful sleep. They wake up throughout the night with physical aches and pains, the manifestation of the hurt inside. I hear footsteps, my oldest daughter’s, at midnight and later. She’s trying to be brave, trying not to “bother” me. Sometimes she gives in too. My heart clenches every time I hear my door open and a tiny weary voice asks ” Mommy, can I sleep with you?” . My response depends entirely on my mood. I’m angry and exhausted too many nights. So tired from keeping up the brave face, so tired from feeding the triplets the night before. At times it’s easier to give in and a relief to have them near. Sometimes I am comforted by their warm bodies next to me, the sweet smell of adolescent skin. Each of them settles so easily once they are near me. And I am comforted that they are not suffering for a bit, not tormented by sleep itself.
Each of them becomes a boxing gymnast in their sleep though. Long legs pushing into me, the occasional slap from a lifeless, flopping hand, knobby knees pressing into the small of my back. Teeth grinding. It’s not as though I am good at sleeping myself.
Sometimes I send them away, so they can learn to cope, learn to quiet the beast that keeps them awake. I lie in my bed and hear them crying. Sobbing, drowning in the overwhelming pain of loss. Occasionally the grief lets go and sleep overtakes them. Sometimes the sobbing gets louder and wakes everyone in the house. Three crying triplets, no one even knowing what will make the crying stop and it’s so late at night. So tired and we are all out of bottles. Those are the worst nights.
I have never known a tired like this. I recall how tired I was when I was pregnant with my third child. I had a four and a two year old at the time. With pregnancy came this tiredness that at times wouldn’t release me until I slept. It would come over me like a heavy wave. But this is different, a demanding tiredness, but more like walking pneumonia. I feel like I’m dragging through, like a zombie pretending to be a human. I cannot make simple decisions, or remember simple things and I can’t maintain relationships.
I have good days. I have days when everyone has slept and I’ve had a good cry, or beat the hell out of a pillow or had the energy to exercise. But I can hardly string enough of them together to be a good friend. It’s not that I don’t want to have healthy friendships and relationships, it’s just feels unfathomable and extraordinarily difficult.
This is my way of explaining why I don’t call as often as I should and why I’ve forgotten that its your birthday. It’s not that I’ve forgotten you, my brain is just busy with the business of healing and processing grief. Ill be back. And I look forward to catching up.
Starting a blog has opened a pandora’s box of Internet usage for me. Just this week I had my 12 year old daughter teach me how to open an Instagram, use Instagram, insty pic, whatever. And I reopened my Pinterest account with the intent of figuring out how to post without having to ask my daughter how to use it. Some of this stems from the very fact that I have an almost 13 year old. I saw the trailer for Bully, it’s a scary world out there. Have you seen the Pinterest comments lately? Terrifying.
But seriously….Three days a week for the past couple of months I’ve been working with groups of girls around Roanoke city teaching them about how to deal with bullies and how not to be bullies. We’ve talked about anger management and breathing, lots of very cool stuff. Most of them roll their eyes at me and sigh and look away and do just about anything to avoid engaging with me. But I’ve seen progress. And confidentially I consider myself an expert. I have to. No human could stand up in front of a group of 10-12 year old girls without first convincing themselves they know exactly what they are talking about. They smell fear.
So here I am breathing deeply and talking about getting thoughts out of our reptilian brains 3 days a week, when I am faced with real life bullies. They are not bullying me, but my kids. Nothing gets a mama bear’s hair up on the back of her neck like hearing somebody being mean to her cubs, uh kids. My immediate reaction is to lash out, put the bully in her place, make the bully feel small. I totally forget about giving my child the power to fend for herself or honoring the hurt that the bully is feeling too. I want revenge.logic and training are the first thing out the door. Oh yeah, reptilian brain… Deep breath, hit backspace…honor the pain. I still wanna punch the little 13 year old twerp in the face. Is this the way Catholic priests feel?
In case you’re worried, I ultimately took the high road. I believe I did it more out of the threat of repercussions, the possibility of public humiliation than actually believing it was the right thing to do though. Which is a good feeling to recognize and honor. But its funny how easy it is to forget how much easier things are on paper. Reality is a whole different beast, reality has feelings. Doing the honorable thing isn’t always satisfying, but neither is spending the night in jail for bitch slapping someone. When it comes to my kids, I’m little more than a cave woman. Its good to be reminded of that primal part of myself. And that is exactly why I teach (and practice) to take a deep breathe. Otherwise instinct is in control and in the wild mamas protect their young. I’ll bet many of us share that, those of us stuck in our reptilian brains and those of us taking deep breaths soon enough to remember how important it is to set the bar higher than cave people.
One thing they don’t tell you in school about being a single parent of 3 kids is that all four of you do everything together. So I drag everyone to teach or direct with me and they learn lots of grown up words and stories. So today was your typical thursday. Mad dash to get out the door only 15 minutes late, eating Ryvita in the mini van, Listening to Justin Timberlake and discussing the layout of the day. The older girls and I volunteered for a school festival and decapitated strawberries with other quirky, fun, well-educated, parents and kids. Then I teach high risk girls how to hopefully not knock each other out when they are angry, all three girls in tow. We essentially end our collective day protesting animal cruelty outside of Barnum and Bailey’s circus. The reality is before arriving at the protest I was pretty tired for the day and had some mild stomach cramps, so I was ready to throw in the towel and go home and just be sad for the elephants. But my middle daughter needed to go, in fact she said she wanted to do this all of her life. That’s ten years people, 2 of which she barely spoke or walked, but she’s been waiting and after all it’s only mild stomach cramps. So we all go out and dutifully play the part of being protestors. And it’s feels really good to be there with my stair step daughters holding up their protest signs and flyers and learning adult words and hand gestures. But we are a team and whether its protecting elephants or roller skating we are in it together. And actually I can live with that.
I’m an only child and I’ve historically been very proficient at happily spending time alone. I had no idea, until recently how much time a single parent spends without other adults. So much so that any stranger can innocently smile at me and instantly become the recipient of a stunningly inappropriate amount of verbal intimacy. Your wife or husband may only pretend to listen to you or give you advice that you did not ask for, but trust me it serves a purpose. I’ve got stories about my kids and about what it’s like to be single again and forty and I’ve been dying to share the story of the raccoon on the back deck with anybody that’s not bagging my groceries. So, ill sit here under the glow of my iPad and share with the inter webs my stories and the entire universe can give me a head nod and a “yeah honey, that sounds bad”. I’m good with that.