Monday, October 26, 2009

Survival Mode: Act I

Her smile was tight and her hands gripped the wheel while a weak "Bye, I'll see you in a few hours" squeaked from her lips. Few. Too long.

My babysitter let the screen door shut before I had the chance to enter. The morning news blared from her TV set, the smell of stale cigarettes and bacon grease filled the small living room.

"Take off you shoes. Damn it, don't you kids ever remember?" she barked. She hid away in the kitchen, behind her newspaper and a cold cup of coffee. Across the living room her daughter, two years older than me with a body of curves and bulges that belied her eight years, was curled up on the burnt orange couch. The thrown. Her thrown. Her half-cocked sneer and arched brow were a bellwether. I shifted into survival mode.

I made my way to the other side of the living room to sit. To wait. The daughter flipped through stations, stopping only to watch my expression. I knew not to react. If I showed even the slightest bit of interest she would quickly change the channel. I remember once grinning wildly at an old episode of Gunsmoke. She flipped the channel and then let out a dramatic laugh of pleasure. I hated Gunsmoke. I was thankful that the sneering girl parked on the burnt orange couch was not too smart.

It swam in a congealed lumpy brown liquid. I pushed it around on my plate, hoping that it would either disappear or jump off my plate and run away before I had to take a bite. "You'd better eat every single bite," my babysitter let the words fall slowly, each a twisted reminder that she was in charge. So I ate. Every. Bite.

"That's mine," her daughter would stare me down, grabbing whatever it was I had in my hands, hers or not. I handed it over. There were too many battles in one day I had to fight, this was not one of them. I remember finding a knotted chain on the sidewalk while we walked to school. She jerked it from my hands, "It's mine!" Twisted. Knotted. Broken. Yes, I thought, it is yours.

"What is that?" My mom squinted at me as I pulled at my hair. She reached across the seat and found the soft pink mass that was lodged among the strands of long black hair.

"Gum? Why did you put gum in your hair?" I had no response, my teeth came down on my lip until I tasted blood. She worked for hours trying to free my hair from what was once a harmless piece of Bubblicious. Finally, she pulled out the scissors.

"Oh my God. You look like a little boy," squealed my babysitter, her short stubby fingers working their way through my hair. With cool satisfaction, a slow grin crept upon her daughter's face.

"You owe me a piece of gum," she whispered.

Tucking my shoeless feet under me, I silently nodded and counted down the hours. Only a few more to go. Just a few . . .

Survival mode.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


"Mama! Mama" JR's small hands pushed against my arms. He stared up at me with a mix of fear and worry. I was breathless and my grip on him was unrelenting. I couldn't let go of him. I could barely move. My mind had returned to a nightmare only hours earlier.

I had awoken to feed my daughter. She was peacefully tucked at my breast as I fell back asleep. In what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, I awoke to see her peering up at me, her arms working their way out of her wrap as if she were trying to reach for me, perhaps to comfort me. My body was tight, my heartbeat echoed in my ears.

I had a nightmare. I can't even bear to write the hazy images that are seared into my brain. I'm still trying to understand how such images entered my mind, invaded my dreams, and turned a rainy early morning into a bruising nightmare.

I can't protect you, can I? I'm sitting in front of JR watching his tiny fingers work the wheels of Lightening McQueen. He loves CARS. He pushes the little red car across the hardwood, an excited squeal escapes his lips. My shoulders tense.

His happiness protected by me. His body protected by me.

Little A's breath is warm against my neck. I feel the heft of her body resting against mine. She is so peaceful, so calm. I rest her on my knees, lean forward, and brush my cheek against her's. A lopsided grin forms on her face.

Her happiness protected by me. Her body protected by me.

But what if I can't? What if something happens? Illness. Accident. Or something far worse.

In my nightmare, I watched him hover over their tiny bodies. JR had curled his small frame around his sister, attempting to shield her. Unaware of the danger, Little A's legs kicked and her hands waved above her head. He knew I was powerless. My babies were his bounty. And I could do nothing.

From the warmth of my womb they came, but into the cold world they will go. For now they are safely curled in the niche of my body and under the ABC quilt in the room next to mine. But I won't always be there, no matter how much I want to, no matter how much I try. I don't think I have that kind of faith. And hope at times eludes me.

I've squeezed my eyes shut a thousand times today, willing the images to go away, praying that GOODNIGHT MOON, the fingerprint painting drying on the counter, the Cheerios under the couch, a single pink sock on the floor will distract me, remind me.

I don't feel like supermom right now. I feel frightened. I feel powerless.

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