A gentle breeze blows on the scene. She glides out of the newly painted back door onto a freshly swept deck, a single set of soprano wind chimes announcing her arrival. Her husband sits doing the New York Times crossword in pen, cooling down from his afternoon jog, and accepts his goblet of wine. I hear her ask, “Oh, did you change the air filters again? Didn’t you just do that?” These words pierce my heart, eager to haunt me later. “What else have I got to do?” he laughs.
I gaze at their garden and seethe at her healthy larkspur. I love larkspur. And sweet pea. And all her Blackfoot daisies that grow in little rows and sing in harmony with the mule grass that matches the stone on her exterior wall just well enough to look like it was an accident. How are her crepe myrtles growing so fast?
A Playmobil dinosaur head blooms in my flowerbed. The butterfly bush has lost its purpose. The roses have caught a cold and the weeds are winning a war only they can see. The Carolina jessamine is half partying and half dead. Five bags of black mulch have been sitting next to the beds for six weeks, unopened. My flower spacing sputtered and died halfway down the row. The end result looks well-intentioned but comically foiled and abandoned by more urgent fires in other rooms.
I’m brought back to life by a wet rag hitting me in the head, thrown by my son. “Mom, can I pee in the birdbath?” he says as he’s peeing in the birdbath. My daughter wanders outside naked with two plastic beads shoved up her nose. The screaming begins. I hear more wine being poured across the street and a discussion over whether it’s a Shiraz or a pinot. I dig out the beads with my pinkies because my other fingers have Play-Doh on them. My son is burying something now; is it poop or a toy? Friends of my neighbors stop by to join in the laughter and cocktails across the street. I get the beads out of my daughter’s nose and blood spews all over my porch.
What do my neighbors have that I don’t? Time and money. My neighbors are retired. I see their pretty blue living room across the street from my window and marvel at the lack of clutter! No trash, no wet diapers on the shelves or unfinished swatches of paint dreaming of one day covering the walls. They have no mounds of laundry or magazines. No sticker books, dining room table leaves, empty FedEx boxes or pictures fallen from the walls. No broken hobby horse with a dirty mop lodged in its body that’s always, always in the middle of the room.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know if I did the right thing, becoming a mother. I would never say that out loud. And if I did, the words would vaporize, holding no truth. Of course I love them. And wanted them. And still do. But I still can’t help thinking it sometimes: “Maybe I shouldn’t have had kids.” True and false all at once.
And those thoughts have fuel. And that fuel is set on fire when I see that retired couple, my smoking envy turning to guilt, which, honestly, is much worse. If guilt were a commodity, mothers would be the prime shareholders.
I remember pre-parenthood: talking to my husband about music until 1 a.m.; honeymooning on the coast of Italy, trudging up a dirt path to a restaurant on a cliff and almost getting trampled by an Easter passion play processional; Gilmore Girls marathons watched in secret over Chinese takeout. I dream of the future: reading an entire book all through the night, getting farther than Sea World for an anniversary. I look at us now, haggard, shirts stained, trying to put a meal together. I know these days will pass. Actually, I don’t, but that’s what everyone says.
I have to go inside and decide what instrument is best for blood mopping. As I walk through the front door, my son leaps from the staircase landing, eyes wild like the plastic dragon he’s holding.
“Catch me! Hjeeeeh!” my dragon boy yells mid-flight.
I see his head, his beautiful, perfect head shooting toward me. A bowling ball that someone has thrown but that has slipped from their fingers, airborne, comical, until you remember the sound it will make hitting the ground.
He lands on me. Two bodies one again. Our arms and legs splayed, creature-like. My legs can’t hold us, and we’re falling. You don’t think in these moments. You’re suddenly an athlete of Olympic rank. Your ability to save the ball is breathtaking, gorgeous muscles growing out of flab, reflexes of a cheetah.
His head…you see the ultrasound picture, the floppy first car-seat ride home from the hospital, the heaviness of sleep. This precious melon cannot hit the ground. All I want is to absorb the pain myself, keep him safe. I’m hoping the back of my skull, shoulder, thigh will take the impact. Twisting, dropping I see the tile floor and use my padded upper back as an airbag. We land, his head on my chest, breathing, back to our first position together after birth. Silence. We made it unscathed.
He thinks. Then whispers, “I know what I want for a pet. I’ve finally figured it out!”
I picture Nana the dog from Peter Pan happily taking care of the kids while I soak in a bath. Forever.
“A termite!” he proclaims with pride and vision.
“Won’t a termite eat our house?” I respond marveling at the calm in my voice.
“No, Mom! I can train him!” he says, still lying there not moving.
His arms come up and around my neck. A rare gift from him. I’ve earned it and pull him into me, like the last blanket in Alaska.
We lie there forever. But it was probably just 10 seconds.
I will get there. To the beautiful, retired, coasting stage of life. But for now, I am all front lines, baby.