This is my daughter Molly’s breakfast this morning. I made it for her. I make breakfast for my kids every morning and I always have. I don’t know HOW I’ve done this every single morning but it has always been a thing and so it still is.
Personally I love breakfast and I’m an early riser so that helps. I’ve never been a milk and cereal person. There’s so. many. good. breakfast. items. So we have everything from bagels and eggs and bacon to hash browns and french toast and steak to my specialty, green egg quesadillas! We also have ham and oatmeal, smoothies, waffles, sausage and granola/fruit/yogurt bowls, as seen above.
I love to cook and although meal planning is one of the most stressful parts of my life it gives me a sense of normalcy and family and consistency that I’ve clung to to bring me through life’s ups and downs. There’s something about raising kids that makes consistency and normalcy feel like deal breakers.
<<<Must provide stable home environment.>>>
And what’s more mythic-level stable than mealtime? It’s the ultimate home proving-ground of grown up-hood.
Stability has been hard to come by in the Riley household. Lots of changes and trauma and shifts and shake-ups. And like I said, when you have kids it raises the stakes so so high. When a tornado is threatening to blow the house down and you don’t know what fire to put out first, and failure just stands there shaking its sad head at you, and then, wait a minute. Hold the phone. What is this?
You slide a plate of hot food across the kitchen table to your children and suddenly the universe sighs…ah…and the house fills with a cozy light, gratitude rushes in to fill the dark corners and you feel like you did something right. Finally.
Twice a day at least, I chase the feeling.
One time when Ray was in first grade for some God-knows-what reason, his teacher confiscated his lunch. She felt it was her place to take from him his perfectly good Trader Joe’s brand cheese crunchies and replace them with fucking Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers. I was mortified. Forget that what I was giving him had less preservatives and coloring than what she replaced it with, this was my pride. Feeding my kids.
Now Molly would eat a fucking bento box for lunch. She regularly made herself actual salads to take to school, but packing “healthy” food for Ray was a waste of food. He didn’t eat fruit ever and the veggies would go from fridge, to lunch bag, to composter every day. Why bother? A sandwich or as he has had now for the last 5 years, a quesadilla and some store-bought snacks was all he wanted. This boy got a hot breakfast, a snack when he got home and then a nutritious dinner in the evening time. What he ate at school was inconsequential and packing something to impress his teachers would have been a costly waste of money.
Still I felt embarrassed and unseen. A fraud. Always a fraud. Even though my TJ’s cheetos were not a terrible choice the fact that I had made the choice made it a terrible choice. This was where I was at at the time.
Everyone could see what was going on. I was like a lame gazelle. Easy pickings and no longer an asset to the herd.
Being a single mom is fraudville. You are missing a big integral part in the world of parents. I was alone. Broke. Emotionally devastated. And all I wanted to do was provide for my kids. Provide security, food, normalcy. Normal. Normal. Normal.
What a worm hole. Norm hole.
This one particular day God showed up in a very peculiar way. (S)He’s like that.
It was another swell of hard times. It always seemed no sooner did I feel I had crested the worst of the crashing waves and was sailing again, the winds would pick up and rip off my sail. My daughter had been outed of her friend group. A reliable group she had had since she was 3 years old. It was cruel and unbearable. I was angry at everyone involved and just wanted to end the pain. She had been finally invited to a birthday party after months of exclusion but I could smell the blood in the water. As I waited for her at the mall, I knew she would come out of this party with some reason to feel picked on or lesser than and I just didn’t know if I could bear her pain for another minute.
My adorable son and I walked around the mall as the party wound down. He wanted an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel as he always does. It’s actually our mall tradition and I was happy to oblige. As he received the pretzel as big as his head he also requested a blue lemonade. Uh, no. This sugar pretzel as big as your head is enough, baby. And for some reason, all hell broke loose.
It seems like a felony crime to cry while holding a cinnamon sugar buttery concoction and demand an absolutely never before had drink of blue(?) lemonade but that is what happened. There was no basis for this demand. There was no reference for this response. No starting point. No impute. No assertion. No tradition or ritual. There is already the grand prize in your hand. You don’t ask for more than that!
But Ray started in on one of the biggest, if not the biggest, meltdown of his young life. And meltdowns weren’t even his thing!
His big bouncy blonde curls and white milky chubby cheeks and his long lashes and big pale blue eyes were smothered in red angry tears. Same for the pretzel in his hand.
He could not be consoled. I dragged him (literally dragged…I know you know) from the Auntie Anne’s counter and took him in my arms. He pushed me away. He was angry. Irrational. Please eat the $5 pretzel, please eat the $5 pretzel, I pleaded silently. He would not be swayed. He threw it on the floor. Everything moved in slow motion as every face seemed to swivel to me. Life was over.
He hated me. Forever. He only loved Daddy. I denied him everything. I was the worst. He would never love me again. He wanted to live with Daddy. And on it went.
I hate you too I thought. It was the exact opposite of what I felt actually. The love and empathy for my sweet baby…I was drowning in it. I loved him so much I would do anything for him. I wouldn’t give in to that blue concoction but if it would truly make our lives or at least his life better, your damn right I would have bought the whole bubbling carafe of it. But I know that’s not how life works.
Here was my child, pink and wet with rage. Here was a mom, ashamed, spent and absolutely suffocating in love for her crying baby boy. I was so unable to take the feelings in and totally incapable of making sense of the situation and helpless to keep my pain out of it that my emotions spun into violence. It was all I could do to not lash out. Dig a fingernail into his arm. Twist his arm. Lift him off the floor. Smack his behind. Knock him down. Anything to move this festering, blistering black tar feeling of failure and unfairness away from me. Thank God I did none of those things. I got some physical distance from him because the desire to cause pain was palpable. I stepped back. He was safe. He was crying. He was drawing attention but he was safe. I offered him some water. No? Okay. I had some. Okay? Let’s walk to meet your sister.
But his crying continued, his “I hate you”s fresh and sharp. My own rage and shame drifted off me like steam. Okay, I said again. Let’s go then. We walked slowly towards the restaurant. Him bringing up the far rear. People continued to stare. I didn’t blame them. I so desired to hold his hand and comfort him and kiss him and make him feel better but still also I fantasized about squeezing his hand till he yelped. I’ll give you something to cry about. A battlecry I was ignoring with every cell of my being.
We got to the restaurant and the other moms were waiting outside. My friends and the moms of the kids I felt were excluding my daughter. I plastered a smile on my face. Putting up a front was exhausting but my truth felt so ugly. My crying spiteful child kicked my calves behind me. I tried to act normal.
I was not quite able to laugh it off so instead I explained in a way I thought an adult might that I was letting him have his feelings. I again moved a bit away from him so he couldn’t hit or kick me and I’d feel less inclined to hit him across the face with the back of my hand.
I had never hit my kids across the face with the back of my hand and yet it felt like something that would be so satisfactory, so instinctual, so right. Bam! So yeah, you stand over there. I will stand over here, a short distance away. A little longer than arm’s length.
Evidently Ray looked like a kid who was lost as he was standing alone and crying with no parent actively attending to his tears. I watched perplexed as seemingly out of nowhere, two security guards approached my small son and asked him where his mom was. He pointed to me. That conversation ensued.
Mortification on a nuclear level. A giant spotlight opened up over my head. BAD MOM the powers that be said over the loudspeakers.
Actually, security was quite understanding and nonplussed at the situation. I’m glad the mall guests were concerned about a potentially lost child but he was with me, just deeply unhappy. So was his mom.
And so was my daughter. The party was a disaster (at 12, there’s no nuances. It’s either Disneyland great or a disaster). It was not the joyous, happy, feelings-tied-up-in-a-bow reunion she wanted. The feelings of being left out and not good enough were still all there. Maybe even more so. She was devastated and inconsolable. All my attempts to sympathize were met with “you don’t understand at all…you don’t even try.” Finally, “you’ll never understand.”
I knew it was best to not say one more single word. Just like avoiding smacking my son, I had to avoid any unhelpful words leaving my mouth. And they were lined up. Bitter. Done. Accusatory. Blaming. I was so over the sad sack story of her life and I wanted to lay it all out for her. But that would not make anyone feel better. Ray was still in active cry but let me take his hand. We all walked out of the mall together.
It seemed to take 10 million years. Why are malls SO BIG? Don’t make eye contact I told myself. Don’t cry. Don’t let your self-loathing overtake you. You can cry later. It was one foot in front of the other, breathing, and nothing more. I swear glaciers melted by the time we climbed into the warm stale comfort of our SUV.
The kids were safe in the back seat. I turned on the radio as quickly as possible. No conversation. Home sweet home where dinner could be made, maybe even a glass of wine poured. I’d let the kids watch some TV and I could cry in the shower.
As we drove across the valley and my shoulders came down below my eyebrows, the large SUV in front of me came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the block. There was that sharp squeak of breaks and another sound. A sharp high cry.
The SUV started moving and pulled ahead and as they did, I saw a small dog lying in the road. He had been hit. I threw the car in park and leapt out. As I crouched over the tiny white chihuahua, I could see he was gravely injured. He was bleeding from his injuries and his mouth. He was so small. I looked at him, at my hands. I knew if I picked him up that would probably be it.
He was so near death and I was sure moving him would be painful and traumatizing, that just the act of moving him from the street could kill him. But I couldn’t leave him there. I picked up his broken bleeding body and felt air rush into him. Then, little tongue lolling out of his mouth, he took his final shuttering breath and died as I cradled him in my arms and walked across the street. As I laid him down on the sidewalk, I remembered my car was stopped in the middle of the street with my kids inside! But my kids were already out of the car and running towards the sidewalk. I got them safely out of the street then ran and moved my car to the curb.
My kids were crying (had Ray ever stopped? We don’t know.). I was trying not to. I squatted over the tiny dog and looked at his collar. There was his name. Lucky.
And a number. I grabbed my cell phone and called the number. I was barely able to talk as a person answered hello.
Do you have a dog?
(No way to say this.) I’m so sorry but he was just hit by a car.
Suddenly I could hear the voice in real time. The person I was speaking to was suddenly outside. He and his younger brother and sister, all maybe 16-20 years old, came tearing out of the house right across the street, looking around frantically, calling LUCKY! LUCKY!
I lamely flagged them down. They sprinted across the street not bothering to look at traffic. The oldest scooped Lucky up off the ground and held him to his chest. All of them were sobbing hysterically. My kids were sobbing hysterically (had Ray stopped?) I was sobbing too. It was all out now.
The boy asked what happened. The car in front of me hit him. I didn’t see it but I heard it. He pulled away. Maybe they didn’t know they hit anything. I got out of the car and moved Lucky over here. He died in my arms.
Molly and Ray repeated, we didn’t hit him. We swear.
The older boy thanked me through his sorrow. The siblings surrounded the dog, placing their foreheads on his small frame. This dog was loved. I made sure they got back across the street and gave them hugs but they were lost in shock and grief. I went back to the car, got my kids in and started back home.
Our trio was shell-shocked. We drove in absolute silence. The way those siblings tore out of their house seared in our minds. We got home, loaded out of the car and into the house silently.
The kids watched TV and I cried in the shower. Then, I made homemade fettuccine alfredo, turkey meatballs and salad. We watched nature documentaries which is something we all enjoy. Tradition. Normalcy. A perfectly horrible afternoon made somehow better for us by our playing a positive part in someone else’s tragedy. The complexities of how that lifted us, cured us, smoked us…no, not smoked us. How that cleaned us. Like a strong wind it blew away our pollution and left us able to breathe. A shared experience that was bigger than us.
Everyone has tragedy. Challenging relationships. Missed opportunities for blue raspberry lemonade. Disappointment. Dashed expectation. Failure.
And knowing that, I made dinner. Another reset. Another strong wind to blow away the bad feelings, the sense of doom. The act of organizing the morning’s dirty dishes, the water boiling in the pot, the sliced carrot and celery sticks, a shiny glass of Shaw. Erin, you have done this right. This is your thing. You may feel wrung out and raw but you are worthy and capable. You made dinner tonight. And you will do it tomorrow. You did not hurt your child. You did not pour salt in their wounds. You gave them dinner. You will give them breakfast. You love them. And you are a good (enough) mother.
You gave a dog dignity. You gave a family an opportunity to have a loving stranger tell them their dog had died rather than the other myriad of ways that could have gone. Life knocked you down and you are still standing.
Life is broken. But you’re not.