What Matters Amidst The Chaos

by Amanda Magee
Originally Published: 

Time is doing that thing again–that thing that reveals how fast it goes even while some days seem to last for weeks. It isn’t the back-to-school blur or a concentration of deadlines at work, though those are both real and present. It’s the toss of hair and expressiveness of Finley’s eyebrows, her declarations of, “It’s just odd!” followed by a quick scan of the room to see if we all caught how mature she is. It’s Briar slipping quietly into a private realm, emotions and Minecraft, daydreams and song lyrics. The way Avery thrashes in the night, limbs too long for her pajamas and shocks of hair that when tucked behind her ear reveal new hollows in her face.

I buck against the inevitability, the idea that parts of our lives were rewritten or that certain paths I said I’d never tread are predestined. Mostly, I want life not to feel so out of control just long enough to conquer time. I crave mornings that I know exactly what will be packed in the lunches, how I need to dress for the day and which activities call for what preparation. That isn’t the way, though. The more I try to be calm with certainty, the more the ends of the day unravel and tatter and a yes to one commitment gives way to something that I will have to miss.

“You mean you won’t be there to see me get my new belt?” Avery asks, crestfallen.

“No, what I said is that I will be there on Saturday for the testing when you earn your belt, but Monday I may not be back to see you receive your belt.” My voice was firm, but it was a thin veneer, and behind it my nose burned and my insides raged. I don’t want to miss either. How did this happen? When did the reins of my own life slip from my hands?

Looking at my calendar, the color of my commitments is purple. The lines attack the tidy little squares, slash here and slash here, bigger slash here, overlapping slashes here. It goes on in a blur. There is no prize for being busy, and yet, paring it down seems insurmountable.

Last weekend–one of the lone remaining free weekends of the year–saw us driving to Boston. We opted to stay for just one night, but the kids are in this weird phase where they all get carsick, and we had to be back Sunday for a thing due to start at noon which meant doing a four-plus-hour drive twice in less than 24 hours.

I booked a room 30 minutes outside of Boston, loaded the car with Bonine and Dramamine, packed snacks and tried to unlock and discard my fury at once again being hemmed into a schedule that I contributed to making. The girls chirped in the backseat.

“Will there be skyscrapers?”

“Can we eat at restaurants?”

“Do you think the hotel will have a pool?”

The rat-a-tat questions lull me into a stupor, “Yes. Uh-huh. Maybe. I’m not sure. No matter what, we’ll have an adventure.” Autopilot soothing and setting expectations uses the same muscle that sales pitches require of me at work. My drive to please and conquer sustains me no matter what.

I turned a movie on for the girls and they leaned into one another, heads tipped, legs tangled. I pressed my head against the window and let a montage of memories of my own childhood drives fill my mind. The bittersweet tethers of loved ones and cherished times tug at me—my grandparents at the airport, the Columbia Gorge vista on the way to Sunriver, visits to my dad’s house with quiet tears there and back.

I checked on the girls and tried to imagine what they’ll remember. Will it be my hisses about the cost of the hotel? Sean’s excitement about seeing the boats race? Wearing matching Pedroia shirts? Briar looks at me, tilting her head sideways and mouthing, “You know I love you, right?” I stifle a sound: maybe a sob, maybe a laugh. There are parts of me that run through her so deeply, the keen awareness of pain or joy.

“Yes, I do, sweet love.”

The trip ended up being a whirlwind of laughter and magic. I stopped wondering what they’d remember and just let the day take us.

Turns out that the hotel did have a pool, not to mention a fantastic lifeguard who we’ll never forget. As we packed up and headed to the car, the girls crackled with excitement. “Ave, do you remember when we saw the first tippy-top part of Boston?”

We headed home through New Hampshire and Vermont, the route straighter and more beautiful than the way we’d come. We stopped at a small cafe in Bethel, Vermont, for sandwiches and soup. The girls oohed and ahhed at the falls through the window. I was surprised by the experience—tipped glasses and complaints about food never came. We talked and laughed. No high chairs or bibs, no modifications from the menu, just five people having lunch midway through a road trip. It was wonderful.

When we got to the parking lot, the girls wanted to climb a retaining wall. Normally there would be sharp words about being safe and hurrying to the car. This time we let them climb. Briar was first.

“Dad, catch me in the air!” My husband spun and held the camera as my arms twitched. I watched, remembering a time when “Catch me!” was literal and our arms outstretched, breath bated as we waited to feel the slightness of her form and the enormous weight of her safety fill our arms. I realized that we don’t catch her in the same way anymore and my heart splintered.

Image courtesy Amanda Magee

Then she said breathlessly, “Did you get it? Did you see me?” And it’s OK, even if it still hurts, because we did catch it, and we taught her to catch herself and it’s supposed to go like this.

The memories, hopes and dear-God-we-caught-her emotions all swirl inside of me, depending on one another to exist as they etch deep grooves in my marrow. I feel an exhale, slightly ragged, but still an exhale, that carries a simple reminder for me:

It isn’t how it is that matters. The heart of everything is simply that we are.

This article was originally published on