Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Always Like the Criers

Katie was sitting in my lap in our favorite worn-out old rocking chair.  She's much too big perhaps.  Sometimes my legs fall asleep under her weight.  But the pins and needles are worth the connectedness I feel when my six-year-old sits on my lap in our chair.  The chair my body once fed her in.  The chair my arms rocked her to sleep in.  The chair we sit in when she's done something wrong and we need to have a serious talk.  The chair we read together in.  The communication chair.

When I was in about second grade my mom pushed me off her lap.  I was infatuated with a Hungarian family up the street.  I was best friends with one of the girls, and I loved ringing the doorbell to their house to see if my friend could play.  It seemed like I was always walking in on some family love fest.  From both her mom and dad.  They were the kissiest, huggiest family I had ever seen.  I wanted that.

My friend, who was a year older than me even, would often sit on her mom's lap and talk baby talk.  Her mom would talk baby talk back to her.  It wouldn't last long.  Then my friend would hop off her mom's lap and get back down on the floor with me and our Barbies.

One day I worked up the nerve to try it at home.  My parents were not affectionate people.  They were raised in the days when so-called experts recommended mothers (no mention of fathers) put their infants down and let them cry it out, never hold them for too long or else you'd spoil them.  I don't know how, but my mother somehow learned that this is bullshit and used to tell me, "I don't think it's possible to spoil a baby."  But older kids were a different thing.  She kissed me and occasionally hugged me, but it never felt like it was ever enough.  I admit, I was an exceptionally clingy child.  Mom must have felt overwhelmed by my need for constant validation.  

My dad is another story.  His dad was an alcoholic who died at the age of 48.  He used to beat my dad with a belt.  Then Dad was drafted into the army where he helped clean up after World War II.  When he was twenty-two he found his dad dead in the shower.  He and his first wife lost three babies.  My dad has suffered through many atrocities.  He put up a shell.  It's breaking a little now though.  A few years back, on the phone with him before he was about to have his second open-heart surgery in twenty-one years and I was worrying he might die, I blurted out without thinking, "I love you!"

"I love you too," He said without hesitation.  It was so weird.  But good.  It was the first time we said those words to each other.

Now when we talk on the phone, which granted isn't much, we tell each other we love each other.  It's still weird, but less so.  It's a tremendous breakthrough for our relationship.  I'm proud I reached out to him and led the way.

Mom tells me she loves me and we write back and forth via email regularly.  When we see each other now, she's way more huggy and kissy.  I don't know what happened.  Life, I guess.

My parents are both much more affectionate now, in their old, softening age, but also as our society as a whole becomes increasingly pro-affection.  But when I was a kid, I saw my parents kiss only one time, and that was when my dad was leaving for a six week business trip.  My mom kissed my dad on the cheek.  I was shocked.  So was my dad.  It was winter and we had the central heating on which caused the house to get really dry.  When Mom's lips touched Dad's cheek they gave him a little shock.  He swatted his hand around her head as if to shoo off a fly.  That was the one time I saw my parents kiss.

So when in second grade I decided to sit on my mom's lap and talk babytalk with her, she looked at me like I was crazy and shoved me off her lap.  "You're too big for that, Becky!"

I jumped up.  Heartbroken.  Too big?  I developed anorexia three years later, by the age of eleven.  I did not want to grow up, develop breasts, get big.

My mom hardly ever scolded me.  She didn't have to.  I was effortlessly self-critical, even as a young child.  My mom could look at me with just a touch of disappointment in her eye and I'd stop whatever it was I was doing and often cry.  I was a big cry baby.  What's this "was" talk?  I still am.

So what.  I've learned to live with it, be proud of it even.  Crying is not a sign of weakness.  It's strong.  It shows I care.  What's wrong with that?  I think an occasional good cry is good for my soul.  Somehow we get past the way we were raised and say bullshit, that's not how I'm going to do it.  I'm going to try it this way.  Like Mom did when she felt against expert opinion that it's impossible to spoil an infant.  Like I do when I stop worrying at the back of my head that someone thinks Katie's too big to sit on my lap.

I had just gotten home from work and I was eager to hear how Katie's first day back to school was.  She'd been sick with a fever the previous week.  And I wanted to hear how school was the first day back after The Sandy Hook Massacre last Friday.

After Will and I talked it over, we decided it would be better for Katie to hear about the shooting from us rather than finding out from one of her classmates on the playground.  So earlier that morning, I did the difficult parenting task of talking to Katie about the horrible events.  I tried to keep it short and offer plenty of reassurance she is safe.

"Honey, before you go to school I want to tell you about something that happened, in real life.  It's a story that's in the news and a lot of people are talking about it.  I want you to know if you have any questions about it you can ask me or Daddy or any of your teachers at school.  But if your friends tell you things about this story, they might not be true, so ask us if you have any questions, OK?"  I was crouching down in front of Katie, who was putting on her socks and shoes.  All by herself.  Not tied--velcroed--but still she's self-sufficient.

Katie's eyes grew big.  "OK," she replied.

"OK.  Waaaaay waaaaay waaaaay across the country in a state called Connecticut, way out by the Atlantic Ocean, there is this school where a man who had something wrong with his brain hurt some kids and some grown ups there.  But he is dead.  He shot himself in the head with his gun and he won't be hurting any more people."

Katie stopped me.  "Did he kill children?"  She wanted to know.

This is so hard.

"Yes, Sweetie.  He did kill children.  And he killed himself.  He had something wrong with his brain.  But he's not going to hurt anyone else anymore.  But I wanted you to know about it because some of your classmates might know about it from seeing the news over the weekend and I didn't want them to scare you by telling you something that might not even be true.  So ask me if you have any questions, OK?"

"OK.  Mom, I think Rita will know about it because she still has cable."

Was my kid really just now making yet another dig about the fact that we ditched cable over a year ago despite Katie's protest that we needed it?  Now?  When I'm telling her this horrible story?  That is awesome.  I'm so glad she's more concerned with her own kid problems of not being able to watch Nick Jr anymore.  That is what childhood worries should be.

Katie seemed fine with the information.  I dropped her off at the school and prayed for the best.

That evening, in our chair, I was elated to be so close to my girl.  I missed her all day, an undercurrent of maternal worry flowed through my entire body while I was at work.  I was glad to be home.

"So tell me about your day," I began.  Katie was picking at one of her fingernails.  She no longer allows me to clip her nails and insists on peeling them off herself.

"We talked about the thing you talked about this morning," Katie knew to get right to the point.  Her empathy level is amazing.  She nearly always feels the emotional intensity of anyone around her.  I've given her plenty of practice over the years.  Having a mom with posttraumatic stress disorder has its perks.

"Oh, you did?  I was wondering if you would.  At an assembly?"

"No, in class.  We had a drill," she explained.  Will had taken a seat on the couch to our right and Katie looked back and forth at us.

"A drill?  What's a drill?"

"Ms. B shouted out Code Red and we all had to go to the safe zone and be really really quiet so we could hide from the bad guy."

My six-year-old knows the drill for when a shooter arrives at her school.  I long for the good ole days of running into the hall, crouching down, and placing our hands over our heads to shield them from the nuclear bomb.  Or maybe it was a tornado.  I never could remember which disaster it was we were preparing for.  But, no.  Never did we have a drill where we pretended to be hostage to a disturbed person with an assault riffle.  In elementary school.

"Wow.  That sounds like a really good plan.  Did it feel like a good plan to you?" I asked, trying not to sound too bright.  I didn't want to overdo my acting.  Inside I felt terrified.  But I had to be big and strong for my baby.

"Yes.  It was hard for everyone to be quiet though," she explained.

"Yeah, I can imagine.  It's hard to be quiet when you're six or seven."

"Yeah, Stone cried," Katie reported, her voice quick and clipped, like she was spitting out the words.

"Stone, cried?"  I knew this Stone boy.  He was in Katie's class last year too, when I was the reading helper.  I saw him every Friday and he read to me and we sometimes sat next to him in the cafeteria when Will and I would visit Katie during lunch.  I always liked it best when Will came along so there would be an extra pair of ears to listen to Stone talk.  He's a sweet, sensitive kid.  But man can he talk about Hulk Smash, his favorite thing on earth.

"Yeah.  He cried.  He was scared.  He didn't knowed about it."

He was probably at home all weekend playing Hulk Smash, the sweet kiddo.

"What did the teacher do when he cried?"  I have my own selfish reasons for this question.  Since my own first grade teacher thought I was a cry baby, I'm always curious about others who are prone to cry first and talk later and how their teachers react to them.

"She...she..." Katie struggled for the word.  She patted my shoulder, cocked her head to the side, and said, "There there," softly.

"Your teacher comforted Stone?" I asked.

"Yes!  Comforted.  She comforted him when he cried," Katie rested her head against my shoulder.

"Do you think he feels better now?" I asked.

"Yes," Katie said, accusingly.  Like, why do you care so much about Stone?

"I like that Stone boy," I explained.

"Why?"  Katie wanted to know.

"I don't know.  I always like the criers," I said.

Katie laughed and I realized how funny that sounds.  I smiled.  "It's true.  I do like criers.  I was a cry baby myself when I was kid.  So I have an affinity for them."

Katie's jaw dropped.  She didn't even ask me what affinity means.

I continued, "I was a big crier.  My first grade teacher wrote on my report card that I cried too much.  But I didn't.  I was just a sensitive kid."

"That is rude!" Katie remarked.

"Yeah, my teacher was kind of mean," I explained.

"Why was your teacher mean, Mommy?"

Oh it's Mommy now?  She's lately been taken to calling me just Mom.  "Well, she was old-fashioned.  She liked to do things the way they thought you should do them a long time ago.  But now we know that crying isn't a bad thing that needs to be stopped.  It's just a way of communicating when you don't have words for something that hurts."  I didn't know who I was speaking to at this point, the first grader in my lap or the first grader inside me.

We sat for a moment without saying anything.  Just hugging each other.  Finally I asked, "Do you feel like your school is a safe place?"

"Oh yeah," Katie assured me.  She gave me a little squeeze.

It may or may not be.  While reading over the school's lockdown procedures, it dawned on me that any of the things they do they did in Sandy Hook too, and yet twenty kids and six school employees are dead.  So whether it's true that Katie's school is as safe as it can be is a hard question to answer.  But what's important is that my kid feels safe there.  Day to day anxiety is not conducive to a good learning environment.  For their assistance in partnering with Will and me to raise as well-adjusted of a kid as we can, I thank the good teachers and administrators at my daughter's school.  I think we're doing the best job we can.  Even us criers.