I’m having trouble writing this essay because I can’t sit still. I don’t have ADHD. I haven’t drunk too much coffee. I’m not overly energized in any way. I’m anxious.
The cause of this day’s anxiety is pretty typical for me. I can’t sit still today because I’m worried a mouse will run across my feet as my attention is focused on my laptop screen.
Musophobia. Even typing the word mouse gives me the creeps. I have such a severe phobia of mice that I once spent an entire summer locked in my hot bedroom, refusing to come out during the day while I was home alone when my parents both worked. We had just moved into our temporary home when I thought I saw a little brown furry thing dart across our living room floor. I froze and when I began to thaw I went to my room and shut the door. It was the summer after sixth grade, before seventh grade, where I’d enroll in a new school, where I’d be totally lonely among an abundance of kids I didn’t know.
My dad had decided he wanted to live closer to his new job, so he moved us from the home we had lived in since one-month after first grade started for me. My youngest sibling Jenny, eight years older than me and a full-grown adult, had recently moved out and was making plans to get married. As the youngest child, it was just me, Mom, Dad, and their deteriorating marriage. It felt like the foundation of our family was crumbling around me. Making cracks, letting the mice in.
I was born into a large family that had been well established long before I came around. I am the product, the only child, of both of my parent’s second marriages. My dad had married a woman named Shirley. They had one child, my paternal half-sister, Glenda. Then they divorced. My dad remarried my mom, Beverly. They had one child, me.
While Dad was married to his first wife, my mom had married a man named Jim. They had four children, my maternal half-siblings, Jay, Kit, Pat, and Jenny. Then they divorced. My mom remarried my dad, Glen. They had one child, me.
They brought me home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day. When I was a kid I resented sharing my birthday with this day of feasting on food that is far from my favorite. But as I’ve aged I’ve stopped minding. It’s a nice day to get together with family, and an even better evening to get to go home with the smaller branch you’ve chosen as your own among the limbs of your family tree.
In many ways I feel like both an only child and the youngest sibling of a big family. I spent the first twelve years of my life pretty much feeling like the latter, and the next six or so feeling like the former. And the next twenty-three feeling like both.
Now I’m a mother myself. And it looks like Katie’s going to be an only child. I got a message from the second adoption agency we’ve consulted informing us that we don’t quite qualify for their services. I mean we do, we would, if we changed our criteria. But we don’t want to adopt an infant. We’ve done the diaper changes and we’re done. Plus, we want to give a bigger kid a break. Aren’t they harder to adopt?
Well, evidently not until they are nine years or older. Or medically fragile. Or one of a sibling group.
We just want one more child. Katie and one adopted child, preferably a girl, preferably younger than Katie, so age 3-5. I guess we’re too picky.
We could foster a child and have a 70% chance of adopting her. But that also means we’d have a 30% chance of losing our relationship with that child if it was determined that she should go back to her biological family.
I don’t want that kind of trauma for Katie. I don’t want her to know what it’s like to have a sister and then lose her. I don’t want her to feel the foundation of our family crumbling beneath her.
I want her phobia-free.
So we won’t be adopting anytime soon. Until Katie’s at least ten, probably.
And I doubt if I’ll get pregnant again. I have PCOS. It took a fertility specialist’s help for us to conceive Katie, and that was back when I was thirty-five, not forty-one. They considered me of “advanced maternal age” back then, so I’m sure they’d consider me to be just plain fucking old now.
My hands, in front of me as I type this, have tiny lines on them. Lines that were not there when I was a youngest child or when I was an only child. They have emerged with every passing year, long into my own adulthood. Unlike many American women, I am proud of each wrinkle on my hands.
Sometimes at work there’s a paper jam in the photocopier. I have to open trays and pull out paper to clear the misfeed. Then, to test it, I make a photocopy of the back of my hand.
The security guard and I were joking yesterday that I should have kept a folder of all the copies of my hand over the years. I’ve worked for the library for nineteen years. I have made many photocopies of the back of my hand. It would be cool to see how it has changed over the years. Smoother then. A wedding ring now.
I looked at the most recent copy of my hand for a moment before I threw it into the recycle bin. I hadn’t saved the younger hands, why should I start saving them now? While looking at the copier-induced dark lines across my hands, it occurred to me: I’m a grownup. I’m well into being a grownup. I’ve been a grownup now longer than I was ever a child.
And the most surprising thing of all: I think I’ve got a handle on this life thing.
Each of those lines on my hands has been earned by surviving this life. And here I am, not just surviving. Actually enjoying my life. It’s kind of amazing.
Sometimes I feel silly patting myself on the back for surviving life. My life has not been nearly as hard as some peoples’ lives have been, I scold myself.
“Count your blessings,” Mom would say, standing at the doorway of my bedroom. “There are many people in this world who have far less than you.”
It was true. I was a middle-class, white, suburban girl living in one of the most affluent suburbs in the country. I had my own bedroom to hide in. I no longer had to share a room with my sisters.
On that first Thanksgiving, after they brought me home and passed me around and I pooped on my frilly pink outfit, I was cleaned and set down for a nap inside my crib, which Mom had put in Dad’s and her bedroom. A few weeks later, after my dad complained about the noise, Mom moved my crib into my sisters’ bedroom. I spent the next two years sharing their room, waking them up in the middle of the night. Jenny, the younger, nearly eight years older than me, would get to go right back to sleep. Kitty, the older, nearly eleven years older than me, got up, got me a bottle, changed my diaper, and brought me to bed with her where we would both quickly fall back asleep.
This pattern occurred every night of my life until we moved to a newer, bigger house when I was two. Kitty got her own bedroom. Jenny and I shared a room. And yet still, every night, I’d wake up, cross the hallway, enter Kit’s room and crawl into bed with her. I never remember her once denying me a snuggle.
This pattern occurred every night of my life until I was six and Dad’s new job led him to move half of our family to a house sixty miles away. Jay, Kitty, and Pat were left in our hometown. Glenda was away at college. I had never lived with her anyway since she lived with her mom after Dad left them. I always enjoyed seeing my sister Glenda, but I never missed never having lived with her because I never did. What you don’t know you’re missing you don’t miss. Dad, Mom, Jenny, and I moved to our new house, in the suburbs of a bigger city. I lost my midnight snuggles with Kitty. She was left in the care of my aunt, her step-aunt, as she finished her senior year of high school.
In the new house I had my own bedroom. I’d still wake in the middle of the night, but without Kitty around I’d go crawl into bed with my mom and dad. I’d climb into my mom’s side of the bed and squish her into the middle. This lasted a few times before she politely informed me that she couldn’t sleep smashed between my father and me. I tried for a while to crawl into bed with Jenny, but she was often not in her own bed, being a night-owl teenager in love.
Jenny moved out her senior year of high school, when I was nine. For some reason it was decided that I would take Jenny’s former bedroom and my mom converted my bedroom into her sewing and craft room. Jenny moved back in with us at the end of her senior year. When she did we decided to just go back to sharing a room, which both of us enjoyed. On nights when she wasn't out with her boyfriend, we'd lie in the dark together, talking, giggling, seeing who could go the longest without making a sound. My anorexic tummy would rumble and then Jenny's would rumble too, and we'd break into laughter at how our stomachs were sharing a conversation late at night. Jenny's the one who convinced our mom to take me to a therapist when I was losing too much weight. She lived with us for a couple years until she finally moved out when I was twelve. From there on, I had to learn how to sleep through the night by myself.
The house we lived in, the one my dad had moved us to in the act that felt like it split me apart from my sister Kit, my foundation, was infested with mice. We’d be sitting in the living room, my dad shoveling popcorn into his face, dropping pieces of it on the carpet, watching “ Three’s Company” when—snap!—one of the mice traps would go off. I remember one afternoon when I was home alone, after school but before my parents got home from work and I was old enough not to need a babysitter anymore, hearing that eerie—snap! I went to investigate, behind the TV in our living room, and I saw a struggling hugely pregnant mama mouse being strangled by the metal trap. I immediately felt like throwing up. Ever sense that moment, whenever I see a mouse, and sometimes if I’m just thinking of seeing a mouse, I immediately either feel like I’m going to puke or like I’m suffocating, like someone is stuffing rodents down my throat and I can’t breathe. Like that poor mama mouse I saw behind our TV.
A couple weeks ago I had to call in sick to work because I was in the middle of having a panic attack. Let me tell you this: it’s very difficult to compose yourself well enough to call your boss, and the lead librarian, to let them know you can’t come to work because you’re stuck on top of your kitchen table, sobbing, because you’ve just discovered your cat with his paw on a furry brown clump of fuzz—wait it’s moving! Oh shit! It’s not a clump of dog hair! It’s a fucking mouse!!!!!! Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!
There, I just had to get up to get a drink of water. Can’t sit still. I’m freaking myself out thinking about it again. Trying to avoid taking a clonazepam pill because they are slightly amnesic and I don’t want to forget these memories for now. I want to write about them, get them outside my head, open the windows, pull the cord on the attic fan and let the spring air freshen the musty, mousey smell in the house. If I don’t expose these memories I’ll still be stuck in my hot bedroom that summer, afraid to be alone in the house with a mouse, and not in any fun, Seussical way.
But I managed to call my boss and tell her I’d be away for the day, having a panic attack. My crying head was full of snot so I must have sounded like I had a head cold when I talked to the librarian and said simply, “I can’t make it in today. I’m sick.”
It was the most productive sickness I’ve ever had, though. Yes, I had a panic attack. I sobbed for hours and then fell into a deep, long slumber. I couldn’t eat well for days. I ended the week even coming down with an actual bug, the kind that gives you a fever, makes you feel achy and exhausted and forces you back into bed.
But I’m better now. Still a little jumpy when out of the corner of my eye I see a clump of actual dog hair drift across the hardwood floor. But I can live with twitchy. I can function at work twitchy. And how did I get here, dry eyes, out of bed?
I called a freaking exterminator. I took care of the problem myself. I made it through the night like a big girl.
Why didn’t my parents ever do that? Call the professionals. When the foundation of their marriage was crumbling they could have called a marriage counselor. When the foundation of our house was letting in varmints, why didn’t they just call an exterminator?
Now, hear me out. I don’t want the poor little critters dead. I just don’t want them entering my house uninvited. It’s nothing personal against them. But it's MY house, and I'm in control now. The family I have built for myself has a firm foundation, Will, Katie, and me. So if the sight of mice triggers that empty pit of loneliness I felt the day I was home alone and watched that poor mama mouse suffocate in our crumbling house, they've gotta go.
Damn I feel better knowing I can take care of the problem myself, with the help of professionals. Shrinks, exterminators, and me. It's a good formula for a phobic-free me.
When I get to work I’m gonna dig that photocopy of my hand out of the recycle bin. It’s not too late to start some kind of self-reflective folder to keep documentation of my personal growth. Grandma Layton didn’t start her self-portraiture-as-psychotherapy career until she was even older than I am. I can keep track of the lines on my hands to remind myself that each one means I made it. The lines on my hands show that my body probably can’t produce any more children, but they can produce words and sentences and essays that come from my creation.
The other day Katie was working on this word puzzle on a restaurant menu. The answer was, “When I read a book I can never be lonely.”
I thought to myself, bullshit. There are lots of lonely protagonists inside lonely stories. But so what? It’s still delightful to get to join them on their journey, to share their loneliness.
I can’t give my child another sibling right now, but I can bring her books home from the library. She won’t never be lonely, but at night she can drift off to sleep while reading these stories that assure her it’s ok and she’ll survive. And if she wakes up in the middle of the night, she can cross the hallway and climb into bed with Will and me anytime she likes.