The 'Tough Stuff' Can Bring A Family Closer Together (Even Better Than Before)

by Liz Petrone
Originally Published: 
Johnny Greig / iStock

My boy hurt himself yesterday. A door flung open in playful exuberance by his older sister while his small foot was underneath resulted in a banged-up toe. It’s wasn’t serious — or at least it wasn’t that scary kind of serious — and anyway, that’s not the point of the story. This isn’t that kind of post.

What I want to tell you is the rest of it. How he came to my husband and me crying. The two of us were sitting at the dinner table, lost in that holy moment between when the kids have finished and left the table and when we have to force ourselves up to begin the long process of cleanup.

Luca was crying, but that was nothing new. The four of our kids together are a constant cacophony of shrieks, as many in pain as in pleasure. So when my husband and I looked away from each other and toward him, it was not without a kernel of annoyance. It’s not often we’re left alone to talk, just husband and wife. This time is sacred. It’s church.

My husband was closer to him, my view partially blocked by the table and the dirty dishes piled high atop, so he realized first.

“Liz…” he said, and instantly I knew too. This one was for real. “Maybe you should look at this?”

And just like that we were in motion, the five of us swooping in to action like a trauma team on Luca’s behalf. I had him in my arms before I knew I was up, my husband clearing space for him by the sink so we could wash the wound.

The kids scattered to four corners of the house and raced back breathless with their offerings: Band-Aids, blankies, well-worn stuffed lovies, a sippy cup full of warm milk. We were perfect in that moment, everyone assuming their role, no arguing or hitting or jockeying for position. If only just for a second, all the members of this family were united. We had come together.

It was only hours and one urgent care visit later, when the boy was bandaged up and put to sleep in my bed, that we came back undone.

There was shrieking again, each child for their own reason: Jack didn’t want to be separated from his video games. Maria didn’t want to be separated from me. Gabby, made especially vulnerable by the hours she has spent in a spiral of self-blame and self-loathing, was reduced to a screaming, kicking pile on the floor when I commit the atrocity of removing her socks. (It was hot. They were dirty.) My husband and I were edgy, tired, and I’d been wearing a bra and real pants for much longer into the night than I’m accustomed to.

If someone was watching us from the outside, I imagine we would have looked like glass cracking under the pressure of water: first the splintering, a thousand tiny fissures, and then finally the giving-way, the release, the letting go of any pretense of trying to hold anything together as the suppressed emotion rushed in to fill the vacuum.

A few days ago, a reader wrote to ask me a question. She had lived through a suffering, as we all have. The specific kind isn’t even important to anyone but her, and anyway that’s not the point of the story. This isn’t that kind of post. What I want to tell you is the rest of it. She had borne the weight of the suffering, stayed strong through the onslaught, survived.

She had been a warrior.

And then the suffering passed. It was over. Life was quiet again, and she tried to settle back into it, grateful.

Except she couldn’t.

“I was okay,” she explained. “Through all of it, I was okay. And now I’m not. Why would I feel worse now that it’s all over?”

I read her words and remembered coming home from a funeral with my mother. A woman we knew, a mother of children I went to school with, had taken her own life. For reasons still unclear to me, my mother had spoken at the funeral. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember watching her mount the stage, the sound of her heels clicking into the sad silence of the cavernous church, and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be those now-motherless kids. How were they still upright? I wondered. How were they still drawing breath?

I asked my mother as much when we drove home together.

“It’s not now when it happens,” she said. “It’s later. It’s when this is all over, when the casseroles have been eaten, when the long-distance family has traveled back home. It’s then, in the quiet. That’s when we fall apart.”

It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, not then. But it does now. Of course it’s after the suffering that we fall apart. What good would a warrior be in battle if they break at the sight of a weapon? How would those motherless kids have survived if they didn’t shield themselves in protective armor and forge through, swinging and cutting and trudging until the deluge ended and the clouds parted?

How would we have been any help to a broken, and bloodied Luca last night if we each had not steeled against his suffering? How would my dear reader have lived to come out on the other side, ready to heal?

Because — and this is the piece my mother forgot to tell me, the other half of the equation — if in the quiet is where we fall apart, it’s also in the falling apart that we can finally start to heal. Armor is not a soothing balm to an open wound, but as anyone who has ever taken off a bra at the end of a long day knows, the removal of it so is.

First, we survive.

Then we break.

Then we heal.

In the morning after, when we woke, I asked Luca how his foot felt. “Does it hurt?” I asked, leaning over him where he was still wrapped up snug in the bed covers.

He closed his eyes, and for a second I thought he had drifted back to sleep. But then they fluttered open again, a hint of sweet smile in them. “I think maybe it’s better now,” he said, “than it ever was before.” And wouldn’t you know it? I’m pretty sure we all were.

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