Someone to talk to

I could tell something was wrong with my son, Oliver, age 11. When I asked him what it was, he went into his room, closed the door, locked it, and told me to leave him alone. This made it impossible for me to leave him alone. I wanted to know if it was my fault he was upset since I had just snapped at him for asking me to find him the camera. Both of my kids are always searching for something and they often expect me to find it.

So I banged on the door and demanded he open it. I’m not really sure if this is what you are supposed to do when your kid tells you to leave him alone. Or maybe it’s different for girls and boys. I have read that when females are upset, we want someone to ask us what is wrong and listen while we tell them. This is true of me. I hate when I am lonely and exhausted and suffocating under the drudgery of daily existence and no one notices or cares. They just keep watching TV and asking for snacks.

But maybe it’s different for males. I have read that when they are upset you should leave them alone because that is what they really want, and that seems to be the case with my husband. He says I talk about work all the time and that I should leave him alone. Just because we are both teachers doesn’t mean he always wants to talk about how to get people to properly punctuate a sentence or which novels kids like most.

After our kids go to bed he does not really want to talk about their problems or about the things that are broken and need to be repaired. He wants me to leave him alone so he can watch TV shows about men on fishing boats in Alaska. I don’t want to watch these shows, so I do leave him alone and he is happy.

When he is angry, he does not want to talk about why. It should be obvious that he is tired and frustrated because life is hard. I should understand and leave him alone.

But then, I’ve read and observed enough of impulsive adolescent depression to believe the only thing worse than having a child who is suffering would be watching your child go through it and feeling that you didn’t do enough to try to help. And I’m pretty sure every parent whose child has suffered (so pretty much every parent) has felt this way at some point. No matter what you did, either you could have done more or you could have done something different.

Yesterday I read the obituary of one of my former students in the paper. He died at home. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that his mother must be devastated.

So I found the camera Oliver wanted, knocked on his door again, and said I would give him the camera if he let me in.

It worked.

I walked in and sat down on the little green rug that’s been in his room since he was in preschool. The rug has roads on it going from one destination to the next. There’s a school, a park, a police station …

I asked again what was wrong.

He sat down facing the wall, not looking at me.

“I just get sad about my pets sometimes,” he replied.

Oliver has a lot of pets: fish, turtles, lizards, a cat. Sometimes I think he cares more about his pets than anything else, but for him, the pets represent unconditional love and life without the burden of assignments and worldly expectations because pets don’t take or give assignments or care about what kind of shoes anyone is wearing. Shoes are something middle school kids talk about in a way that adults would find rather juvenile. They point at each other’s shoes and ask, “What are those?” This is not because they are curious about where to find comfortable looking shoes. This is to create social tension as a way to stave off boredom and avoid meaningful work.

So pets and wildlife are Oliver’s refuge from stupidity. But sometimes, because animals die, Oliver’s pets also represent the impermanence of everything. Where do they go when they die? What he knows is that when they are gone, he can’t see them anymore, so he tries to photograph each and every one while they are alive.

It reminds me of Poe’s poem, “A Dream Within A Dream,” when he’s talking about the grains of sand slipping through his fingers: “Oh God! Can I not save one from the pitiless wave?”

For two years I volunteered as a Sunday school teacher. I was dependable as far as showing up every week, reading Bible stories, passing out crackers and juice, but I am not at all qualified to be a Sunday school teacher. I am not particularly religious, and I have to try very hard to be somewhat spiritual.

I don’t know what to say to my kids when they ask where animals go when they die. I don’t know what to do when they lock the door and tell me to leave them alone. When I bang on the door and demand to come in, I am trying to save them from the pitiless waves.

What I told Oliver as we sat on the rug in his room, him not facing me because he was too sad to look me in the eyes, was that it is kind of normal to feel this way after Christmas. It’s actually normal to feel this way anytime, even though you see people acting like they’re having such a great time cheering on their favorite teams or dressing up as characters from some movie everyone keeps talking about. Sometimes it’s normal to wonder, what is the point in getting up, getting dressed, making sandwiches, and doing worksheets if everything will be taken away in the end, if change and loss are the only constants?

You feel it more after a major event, like Christmas or graduation, because it took so much to get ready, and you were so looking forward to that climactic moment, which may or may not have delivered, but either way, it passed, so what is left? And you took photos to try to hold on to the moment. You can’t really hold onto a moment, but at least you have a photo.

I was reading an essay yesterday by a woman whose son had died at 22. She still talks to him, not in a crazy way, but in a way that a perfectly reasonable person would talk to her son after he was gone.

I’ve had writer’s block for a while now because there was too much to say and it might have been inconsiderate to say it. Writer’s block is the fear of the truth. It’s also being bored with yourself and feeling that you annoy people by talking too much and writing too much. No one has time for you. You are boring, not funny. And you should stop trying to be funny because half the time, it’s dishonest. Half the time, any humor you impose on the situation is sugarcoating – wishful thinking at best and a cheap sort of flippancy at worst.

Sometimes the most important conversations are the ones we have with ourselves, but sometimes, you also think you might be crazy.

I felt it too, after Christmas, I told Oliver. I had worked myself up to finish grading essays, buy the gifts, make maple fudge and candied walnuts. I literally sugarcoated it. I served fruitcake in class after we read a Truman Capote story about a boy who made fruitcake every fall with a dear old lady friend until he was sent to military school. The boy received letters at school from his friend until they tapered off and eventually his friend passed away. When we watched the movie, the ninth graders noted that the old lady didn’t die at the end.

“I wanted to see her die,” one kid proclaimed irreverently.

This is how 15-year-olds process feelings of sadness in a public forum.

Of course, how we cope in public is nothing like how we feel in those quiet private moments when we wish someone would explain, or at least listen.

Oliver nodded as I talked about how it can be normal to feel empty after a holiday, how I feel it too, the day after Christmas, the day after graduation, sometimes on my birthday at sunset.

And then he picked up the camera and asked to take my picture.



Prayers to Santa

You would think living in a shelter would teach a little girl a thing or two about who she is and what she can and can’t have, but it hasn’t. Every time I walk through Walmart with Cassie to get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk she finds some toy she wants and asks me to buy it.

“Not today,” is what I always tell her. The other day I said maybe Santa would bring it.

“We could say a prayer to him,” was what she said back.

I swallowed hard when she said that and regretted ever telling her about Santa.

There are presents for Cassie under the tree at the shelter. A couple of people dropped them off after the newspaper ran a story about us, telling people what it’s like to be homeless at Christmas. That girl from the paper was about the same age as me, but she said she didn’t have any kids. I don’t know whether she really believed what I told her or if she was just pretending.

Most girls like that don’t understand how you end up in a shelter like Faith’s House if you’re not a druggie, which I’m not, and neither was Jeremy. Their parents paid for them to go to college and that’s where they met the guys they married. For some reason guys with college degrees don’t beat their wives as much. Maybe it’s because they have such great jobs and work so much they’re never around to get mad about stuff like a lost remote control. Jeremy and I had a big blowout about that once.

There’s nobody with a degree at Faith’s House and most of us weren’t married to our exes. Jeremy and I didn’t have the money for a wedding and we were already living together when I got pregnant. We rented a townhouse.  He worked as a bus driver and he also plowed snow in the winter.

I worked nights as a nurse’s aide, but after Cassie was born I started having to miss work all the time because the neighbors were calling me saying they could hear Cassie crying and Jeremy wasn’t getting her.

Jeremy had never been around a baby before Cassie was born. I told him when I got pregnant that things were going to change and he would have to help out at night. He said he would, but I guess he was too tired from working all day to get up and get her when she cried. I don’t even know if he heard her at all. He did drink a lot of beer when he got home from work. He never drank and drove, but all evening long he was nursing a Natural Light like Cassie was nursing her bottle.

The first time he ever hit me was my own fault. Cassie was six weeks old. I was so tired from being up all night with her and I had put her in her swing. I wanted to take a shower because I was so greasy and at that point I was still trying to breastfeed so I had crusty milk all over my shirt. I went to start the water and I heard her fussing. She must have woken Jeremy up. He came into the bathroom with his eyes all red and asked me if I was going to get the baby. I told him he should get her and then I kept running my mouth until he hit me.

From then on, things were different between Jeremy and me. We were enemies, but I couldn’t pay the bills without him. I couldn’t go live with my mom because she had some guy that she met on the internet living in her apartment and she didn’t want me moving home anyway. She said Jeremy was the best thing that ever happened to me because he could change our flat tires and even knew how to keep our cars running, which I had to admit was worth something considering how old the cars were.

I had to leave work early a couple of times when the neighbors kept calling about Cassie crying at night. My supervisor said I’d have to resign if I couldn’t work the full shift. I asked to work days instead, but they didn’t have any openings on day shift, so I had to quit.

After that, it was real hard paying for food, but at least I wasn’t so tired. I mouthed off less to Jeremy and we didn’t fight as much. One time I called my Aunt Linda because I was thinking about asking if Cassie and me could stay with her. She started talking about the unemployment rate and how I was so lucky Jeremy had a job. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell her he hit me. Maybe it was because I thought he wouldn’t do it if I could just stop talking back to him.

But sometimes I couldn’t stop. He’d come home and start drinking and he’d complain about the house being a mess. Cassie had started walking and she was always pulling things out of drawers.

Sometimes Jeremy would say dinner wasn’t good. He was sick of canned soup and sandwiches. I’d say we couldn’t afford steak and he’d take that as some kind of insult to his manhood and we’d be screaming at each other in front of Cassie until he hit me. Then I’d go cry in the bedroom and Cassie would come in and stare at me while I cried.

It went on for years like that. We’d be okay for a couple of weeks and then we’d fight. Sometimes he didn’t hit me, but I still hated him. I knew I would leave him when Cassie started school.

One day after we had a big fight, I got on the computer and Googled “shelter for abused women.”

I called a phone number for Faith’s House and a lady said I could stay there for two months, but they had a time limit for all “clients.” She told me after two months I’d have to find another place to go. Sometimes Social Services can help, but not always, was what she told me.

I took Cassie to the store with me and bought one of those prepaid cellphones. Then I put our stuff in my big duffle bag and left Jeremy a note saying I was moving out and not to try to find me. I guess he wasn’t too concerned because my mom said he never even called to ask about me and Cassie after we left.

I got a job working 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a home health aide, which worked out great with Cassie’s school schedule. I was approved for food stamps and got my card after a month. My job paid enough to keep insurance on my old Honda and I had gas money to get to work, but not much left over at the end of the week. I kept searching through the classified ads, but the cheapest apartment I could find was six hundred dollars a month. I knew I couldn’t pay that plus water and electric.

We were supposed to be out of Faith’s House by Dec. 20. I asked the house director, Christine, if we could stay just a little bit longer because it was hard to move so close to the holidays. She said no. The rules were the rules and we’d been there more than sixty days already. She said she had some grant money she could use to buy me two weeks in a motel or help me with a deposit on an apartment if I found one I could afford.

The next day was Sunday, Dec. 15, and I decided Cassie and me would go to church. Instead of saying prayers to Santa, we’d say them to God, I decided, because I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t really have any church clothes for Cassie so I told her she could wear her favorite shirt with the sequined cat on it. For some reason she didn’t want to wear the cat shirt so we argued about that for a while. I told her to pick out whatever she wanted and she grabbed a sleeveless top out of my duffel bag, which I had tossed in a corner. I started to say she couldn’t wear a sleeveless shirt in December, but then I found a sweater that she agreed to wear ONLY if she did not have to button it.

Then we fought about her shoes. She only had two pairs – her sandals from summer and her Dora sneakers. Guess which pair she chose. When we walked into church and sat down in one of the pews, me in my red sweater from Goodwill and her in her sandals and dirty tights, I felt like I might collapse.

The choir was singing “Joyful, all ye nations, rise. Join the triumph of the skies,” and I started crying. I felt so stupid and tried to hold it in. I didn’t want anybody to see me, but it made me so sad, because wouldn’t it be so wonderful if it were true? If there was always someone to love you and look out for you even if you made the wrong choices? If all the suffering was worth it in the end because you’d go to a safe place where nothing bad ever happened again?

After church we had to go to the store to get the bread and milk. We all shared a kitchen at Faith’s House. The other women and their kids were always drinking our milk and eating our bread. I couldn’t blame them. We were all hungry and tired of generic peanut butter. I kept Cassie’s animal crackers hidden in my duffel bag.

In the checkout line, Cassie grabbed a miniature Cinderella doll with a removable plastic dress. It was $3.99 and I had the cash to cover it, so I didn’t say anything when she put it on the counter. I hated the look the girl at the checkout gave me when I used my EBT card to pay for the milk and bread. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen.

After I paid, Cassie started asking for the doll. I pushed her out of the way, over to the benches where I could put my change back in my purse and get the doll out.

I could hear the checkout girl talking about me.

“Funny how that works,” she said. “Our money pays for their food and her money goes to cheap toys made in China.”

I looked up to see who she was talking to and it was the girl from the newspaper who interviewed me about being homeless. I gave her a dirty look, took Cassie’s hand and started walking toward the door.

“Erin,” I heard her call after me. I was surprised she even remembered my name.

I stopped and turned around.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said.

“She ought to keep her thoughts to herself,” I yelled back. I didn’t want to cry twice on the same day.

The reporter asked me if I ever found an apartment and I told her that I hadn’t because everything was too expensive. Then she asked if I had been checking the classified ads and I told her that I had been, every day, because I’m not stupid.

There was one ad that ran yesterday for a live-in caretaker, free room and board, she told me. I hadn’t seen that one. We walked out to her car so she could give me her copy of yesterday’s paper. I told her she ought to do a story about how Faith’s House kicks you out four days before Christmas even if you have no place to go. She said she wasn’t that kind of reporter, that it was a small town and she had to try really hard not to make people mad, and half the time they got mad anyway.

I guess that’s why girls like that find husbands who don’t beat them. They know how to keep the peace.

She got the paper out of her car and showed me the caretaker ad. I took it and said thanks. I felt like saying thanks for nothing, but I didn’t.

That afternoon I called the number in the ad. No one answered, but later a man called me back and asked if I could come for an interview at 10 a.m. on Monday. He gave me directions to the house where I’d be working. It was off Route 624.

The house was back a muddy dirt road, all covered in potholes and patches of snow. I wondered why anybody would want to live in such a Godforsaken place in the wintertime, but I guess if you lived there in the summer, you’d have to stay there in the winter, too, if you were disabled.

I turned at the sign that said “Millgate” and parked in front of a big stone house. The man who answered the door led me into a room with lots of bookshelves and nice old furniture. The wallpaper had turned a yellowish shade and was started to peel in a few spots.

Then a guy in a blue sweater came in and introduced himself as Dan. He said he lived in Washington and wanted to find someone to live in the stone house with his mother, who didn’t get around well, but could walk to the bathroom with help. The person would have to her help her bathe, do the laundry, make her meals, fill her prescriptions and do some housework when necessary, even though there was a housekeeper who came once a week to do the chores that required a mop and bucket.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” Dan said. I knew better than to tell him I was living in a shelter. If he thought there was a man after me, he’d never let me move in.

He liked the fact that I was a nurse’s aide and I grew up nearby. I told him I was living with my mom and wanted to move out of her apartment to be more independent.

I was pretty sure our conversation would be over when I told him about Cassie, and I didn’t know how to bring it up, so when he asked me, “Why do you want this job?” I told him the truth.

“I have a daughter.”

“Oh,” he said. “How old?”

“She’s six. She’d be coming with me.”

“Well, I was thinking it would just be one person, but if you don’t mind sharing a bedroom, there’s plenty of space in the tenant house for two people,” he said. “When can you start?”

We met Mrs. Briggs the next day. She was in her recliner, in front of the TV. Dan said she spent most of the day either watching TV or reading, and she slept a lot.

She looked at me and then at Cassie.

“You have red hair,” she said to Cassie. “Redheads are special. I used to have red hair, too.”

Then she asked Cassie and me if we would have a cup of tea with her. I made my way into the kitchen and opened up all the cabinets, until I found the tea bags.