My husband, my seven-year-old daughter, my six-year-old son, and I were in the lobby of the main hotel. We had just checked out after our single night stay and heard that the Hershey characters would be making an appearance in the lobby soon. Keyword for us: soon.
My husband was in a vicious mood, but he agreed to wait. He found a seat on one of the sofas. The kids peeked down hallways, waiting for the characters. I paced. I paced in my heeled booties—the ones that were completely inappropriate for Hershey Park. I paced in skinny jeans with bangles around my wrist.
When I finished pacing and the characters still weren’t in sight, I asked the concierge. He again said soon. I asked him from which door would the characters appear. He pointed to a door. My husband grew impatient. He told me he couldn’t wait anymore and he was leaving. My kids started panicking. I calmed my husband and brought my kids to stand right in front of the hallway the concierge had pointed to. My husband stood up and said he was leaving once again; he’d had enough. My kids whined and said they wouldn’t go. My son had a full, kicking and screaming meltdown when I tried to bribe him to leave. I placated my kids. I calmed my husband. People stared.
More people congregated by the door. Three characters appeared: Hershey, Reeses, and Kiss. My son wanted a picture with Hershey. My daughter wanted a picture with Kiss. I pressed both kids to the front of all the respective lines. They got their picture taken and switched characters. I didn’t look at the line forming behind us, didn’t care that others were waiting, too. My husband was already walking out the door without a jacket.
Here’s what you saw: a mom with too many bangles and heeled booties at Hershey Park pushing her kids to the front of the line to meet the characters, two kids old enough to know better throwing a tantrum because they wanted to see the characters, a husband with a scowl threatening to walk out the door right now. Maybe in your mind, you wrote the story of a snobby wife who thought her kids were too special to wait in line with bratty kids and a cruel husband.
Here’s what you didn’t see: the heels and those bangles were the only thing making that mom—me—feel normal because I’d spent the last seventeen months in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals with my husband fighting a losing battle against a vicious cancer; the kids having tantrums were trying to understand why suddenly everything felt broken and their dad yelled when he used to laugh; the scowling husband was actually funny and kind and incredibly smart, but suffering from a disease that affected not only his reasoning, but his ability to use the muscles in his cheeks that drew his lips into a smile.
What you didn’t see was that my husband had brain cancer, and though he was walking, talking, and scowling, he was all but gone. You didn’t see that I woke up that morning beside the man I married and nevertheless missed the man I’d married because brain cancer sometimes takes the best parts of your loved one’s laugh before it takes their breath. You didn’t see that I’d booked that trip two days before and the hotel only had one night available, and I’d jumped on the chance because some part of me knew our family trips were limited.
What you didn’t see was that we had three months left as a family of four, and we were desperately trying to survive and to make the best out of every moment we had.
What you didn’t see was that we desperately needed kindness in that moment. That I desperately needed kindness in that moment.
Recently, the New York Times ran an article about mom-shaming running rampant during the pandemic. Full disclosure: I did not read the article. (Time is tight in solo-parenting pandemic life and the headline told me what I needed to know.) The headline got me thinking about this moment in the story of my life. It feels particularly relevant during these pandemic fall days, when some kids are in school and some virtual, some are playing sports and others are staying home, when quarantine fatigue is setting in and some days feel endless, even as they go by too fast, and we all seem to be judging each other’s choices.
Because this story, more than any other story I’ve lived, taught me not to judge what I’m seeing. This moment taught me the very undeniable truth that we cannot know what is happening in another family, and that likely most, if not all, families are fighting invisible battles we cannot even begin to imagine. This moment taught me that sometimes—most times—a little kindness, a little patience, can make all the difference.
I know what we looked like to other families. I know I should have apologized for my husband’s anger and my children’s whining and my absolute disregard for anyone else in line. But I couldn’t. All of my energy was focused on simply trying to survive.
Once upon a time, I might have judged a family like mine, knowing nothing but what I saw in that snapshot of a moment. I might have shamed them. Now, I know better.
The truth is: we’re all fighting our own battles. And we all need just a little more grace.
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