AUTHOR UPDATE 05/13/14: I performed this piece for Listen to Your Mother 2014 in Northwest Indiana. You can view my performance and those of my fellow cast members (and countless others that took place in 32 cities across the US) on the Listen to Your Mother YouTube channel.
I had a recurring nightmare as a child: It started with my brother and me sitting in a parking lot in my mother’s Pink Panther pink ’69 Mustang convertible. Its white ragtop was down, and its rumble seat was hidden away in the trunk.
The parking lot was outside a crumbling brick building in a southwest Chicago suburb, near where we lived for a couple of years when I was in elementary school. My mom was my Brownie leader. Once, she left us in the car when she ran in to buy patches. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad of a neighborhood, but it’s also where a mentally disabled man-child tried to kiss her outside a convenience store. Compared to where we came from, this had a lasting imprint on me.
My brother had once hooked his diapered behind to the gear shifter in my mom’s old car. It tumbled down the dirt driveway at my grandparents’ with her running after it, shouting at no one, “Stop, Stop!” After my brother dove out the window, she managed to jump in and the old green Ford Torino lurched to a stop. My mother’s white knuckles and heaving breaths are still vivid through the dappled windshield. I suppose I had a well-hidden desire to rescue my little brother from that.
So, my recurring dream took the two of us from that parking lot near Chicago, to a familiar street. All of a sudden, we’re bouncing along the bluff in our quaint lakeside hometown across Lake Michigan. I am in third grade; my brother is in first. I am behind the wheel of that Pink Panther Pink Mustang convertible and we’re careening and hanging on for dear life, until I can’t keep control on a curve and we go sailing off the cliff, into oblivion.
Each time I woke, sweating, frightened, and feeling like a failure.
A condition that is oft repeated years later when I’m a single mom, trying to survive with a delightful, sparkly-eyed little toddler to care for. Alone in my conservative hometown. With no child support.
After much convincing, my mother had co-signed a lease for me and my daughter to escape the 1200 square foot house we’d shared with her and her second husband, three dogs, two cats, and my skooching infant half brother who came a year and nine days after my daughter.
I moved us into a back alley apartment downtown. It had one bedroom, just wide enough for my daughter’s twin-size bed on the floor and an old cane rocking chair from my mother. The room was long and narrow. Her changing-table-turned-dresser occupied one wall, and an overloaded pink metal bookshelf stood just inside the doorway. There was little room for her to play on the floor, and no carpet to cover the distressed hardwood. I read to her in the cane rocker every night before bed, where her projectile spit-up still crusted underneath the swooping wooden arms.
I’d hand-stitched a pink balloon valance for my daughter’s room, a blue one for our living room that doubled as my bedroom, and stayed up for almost an entire weekend straight to hand-stitch a blue-flowered comforter for myself. I have it in the guest room to this day. My daughters and their husbands sleep under it when they come to visit from their respective homes in Minnesota and New Mexico. My daughter used to curl up under it on the pullout couch with me. She’d watch Looney-Tunes on Saturday mornings while I slept in.
She’d curl up in my lap on the bathroom floor, and lift my tear-streaked face, and say, “Wudge you, Momma.”
It was so hard. Paying for daycare. Keeping the lights on, which I didn’t always. Keeping the heat going.
And the loneliness.
A cavernous loneliness from working and earning never enough; from returning bottles and cans from my dad’s office for their 5-cent deposit to buy bread and milk and eggs to feed my little girl; from raiding my dad’s change jar for quarters to go to the Laundromat to wash our clothes.
There were boyfriends on occasion. We both had our hearts broken more than once before we met the man she would eventually call Daddy. Who walked her down the aisle and cried at her wedding and danced with her under a spotlight into her husband’s waiting arms. He gave her an equally impish and delightful stepsister to grow up with, for us to love and to be the only person who could properly send her off to married life with the perfect Maid of Honor RAP.
Since my husband’s daughter, younger by exactly two Januarys, stepped into my daughter's room and said, "This place is a mess," they've shared every birthday. They've shared Barbies®, Practical Magic, potions, and pets. They've whispered under covers and behind closed doors, over phone lines and across air. They've rescued one another from childhood loneliness, and young adult mishap. They welcomed a long-sought brother into their teenaged lives, whose baby’s breath, sweet, meaty little hands and nighttime cries provided an excellent source of birth control.
Just like their father and I, my daughters are bonded by so much more than blood. They're bonded by history. We're all bonded by exactly what the other needed at precisely the right time.
So, what if…?
What if the recurring nightmare I would remember years later while driving my toddler around that same curve in my 1981 Dodge Omni with no radio; sucking her binky and clutching her soft yellow blankie, her trusting eyes watching me in the rearview…what if instead of putting on the breaks and slowing down and taking that same curve cautiously during a blazing snow-storm and thinking time and again through my tears that long winter that I couldn’t possibly do it without her—to leave her with a lifetime of thinking it was her fault? What if I’d closed my eyes, took my hands off the wheel and decided to just drive into that icy lake?
But I couldn’t do it with her either. She was too precious. Too beautiful. Too full of life and possible and hugs and Wudge You Mommas. I needed her, and she needed me, and she saved my life in more ways than I can count. But it was all so much more than one girl should have been asked to carry on her tiny shoulders.
We made it through that winter, and another, and another after that. We made it through me losing a job, and my car getting repossessed, and quietly not being able to pay rent the winter after we met her daddy and her sister. We made it to the day we moved into a new place with them when I saw the weight of more than two thousand days before float off her shoulders with the imagination of two little girls, who were both for once, just being kids. They were playing with the dollhouse my Gramps had made her on the floor in her new bedroom, which had room enough for two small girls, with the same birthday two years apart, to sprawl out on their bellies.
Thank God I didn’t…Just Drive.
Since this post was published, I was interviewed by the brilliant son of a friend, Eno Freedman Brodmann. This was his finals project for NYU film school, honoring his beautiful mother, and single moms everywhere. "Apparent"
I gave a talk a couple weeks ago to the Depression and Bipolar Alliance, about the relationship between gluten intolerance and depression (and bipolar, and anxiety disorder, as well as neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's, dementia, etc., etc., etc.) that only years later I have come to understand, and to understand how the avoidance of gluten now helps me to cope so much better with the curve-balls that life inevitably throws our way.
Suicidal thoughts can often be as a result of chronic pain and chronic illness, including infertility, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Please know that your life matters, and that getting help matters, and changing your diet and helping yourself absolutely matters and could absolutely make a monumental difference. We all have a story to tell and we all have a place in this world. There might be someone right around that next corner who needs you in their life; possibly even to save it. Please, save your own first. Suicide prevention, compassion and empathy is so important.
Dr. Mercola on wheat: "Three Ounces of This a Day May be Harming Your Brain"