In the dark of a February evening, people danced in the street. I was maybe eleven years old, watching them through the windshield of my parents’ car. My memory has it all wrong, I know. I was in the front seat with my mom, and we were parked right at the edge of the circle of pavement where people were swinging each other to the music and laughing. Snow collected on their shoulders and in their hair. That can’t be right. Daddy was somewhere else—I picture him in a store, but he had been in there for a long time, engaged in one of the lengthy, rambling conversations that were his trademark. Mom stared hard out the windshield at the people dancing. She was young, in her twenties, and her face was lit only by the dashboard lights. Her long, straight brown hair draped over her shoulders, and her fingers were wrapped around the steering wheel. She was waiting. Was it really snowing? She looked at the crowd, looking for my dad. In the darkness of the car with the engine running, we had the heater on. She said, “He knows I love to dance.”
The threat of my parents’ split was a strong scent that wafted through my childhood home, and I feared it—like smoke from a chimney fire drifting down through the rafters. “Are you going to get a [End Page 111] divorce?” It must have been shocking for her to hear this blunt question—like a blast of hot flame.
I have this part right.
“No,” she answered. She put the car in reverse, and we backed away from the street dance. The music and the lights receded in front of us in the swirling, falling snow. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
I had plenty to worry about during the five-day hospital stay that followed the birth of my son, Owen. He came into the bright lights of the operating theater through a wound cut into my gut by a scalpel, and my recovery was complicated. The pain and the drugs and the hormones and the overwhelm of a new baby combined to make me cry for hours at a time. My husband, John, disappeared for hours at a time, took himself and his book and his sketchpad down to the cafeteria or out to a coffee shop, so he could relax while I cried and nursed and watched television.
Hours after the surgery I refused more narcotics and tried to make it on Tylenol, because I didn’t want my son to absorb painkillers through my breasts. Deep in the night, I awoke to the wetness of my own tears and sweat soaking the pillow. The pain was too much.
The doctor said, “Don’t be such a hero.”
My husband slept, peacefully tucked into the second bed in my hospital room.
The next day, he lay stretched out on that bed, flicking through channels on the television. One hand tucked beneath his head, arm out, elbow bent, the other hand holding the remote, while on my own side of the room, I cried hard beneath the white, cotton hospital blanket. Tears landed on our newborn son, sleeping up against my breast.
“You know,” he said, his eyes still on the television, “you bring a lot of this on yourself.”
My daughter was six years old when a therapist taught her how to act like a turtle. [End Page 112]
“The idea is to teach Abby how to give herself some space,” the therapist said to me in the waiting room of the community health center. It was a narrow room. At one end, a collection of toys—a plastic kitchen, a bin full of action figures with missing limbs—waited for someone to play with them. “She needs to learn how to take herself out of a situation. To collect herself.”
I had started bringing her to therapy when her anger had become pervasive and undeniable. When faced with the smallest slight, the tiniest reprimand, her face assumed a deep scowl—forehead furrowed beneath brown curly hair, mouth pressed into...