Though my daughter is only seven, she’s wise beyond her years. Yesterday, the whole family went to see the new environmental film Oceans, and as each sea creature swam or scuttled into the frame, she whispered excitedly, “That’s a Stone Fish! That’s a Dugong! That’s a Blanket Octopus! Oh my god! A Sea Dragon!” (Meanwhile, Christopher and I could muster nothing more specific than, “Pretty fish! Big whale!”, and my son, who is four? Enraptured with leaning over the railing, straw in his mouth, spitting blue slushee on the floor.)
I looked at Christopher. “How the heck does she know all this?” It’s not so much that she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world; it’s that it’s all available for immediate recall. Nothing has been forgotten.
He shrugged. “Her books, I guess.”
This is the girl who can recite appearance, habitat, and preferred foods of fifty-five sub-types of dragons (the imaginary sort). But it’s also the girl who sulked and cried bitter sloppy tears at the circus the other night because we wouldn’t buy her both the rainbow lightsaber ($10) and the plastic balloon unicorn ($15). She is a wonderful study in contrasts.
Later that night, while Christopher and I were watching “The Pacific” on TV, she snuck downstairs.
“I can’t sleep,” she said. No wonder—she sucked down her entire Coca-Cola slushee. Her eyes were wide and bright. “I heard banging. Like a gun.”
“We’re watching a movie about a war,” I said. “They have guns.”
“Oh. Guns are bad. Fighting is bad. Momma, are you coming up to bed?”
“In a minute,” I said. “We’re having dessert. Do you want some?”
She sniffed at the rhubarb-ginger-honey compote Christopher had made to go on top of ice cream. “Yuck,” she said, and jumped down on the floor beside the dog.
Meanwhile, Christopher and I ate our ice cream (I’d been to the gym earlier that day, so I told IT one small scoop wouldn’t be the end of me), and then I went to the bathroom to pee. Without asking, or informing, or whatever it is I’m supposed to do when Emergency Measures Are in Effect.
Christopher charged after me, full of anger. “You just purged didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t purge. I was peeing. Couldn’t you hear?” I was defensive, tired of having to explain my every move. Didn’t I just pee with the door wide open? Of course, I understood Christopher’s anger, stemming from fear and concern.
“Then why were you reaching down?” he said. “And what’s this in the sink?”
“The kids’ toothpaste. I didn’t fucking purge.” Immediate loud spike in resentment and fury. I forgot to remember my daughter was there and listening. Shit shit shit. I’m trying my best to shield her from IT and the resulting fallout—tense conversations (arguments?) with Christopher and weird rules like keeping the bathroom door open. I wonder if she finds it a relief to go over to her friends’ houses where normal mommies behave reasonably—eat a chocolate bar, speak in pleasant tones, paint their (unchewed) nails Party Pink.
Christopher gave me the hairy eyeball, so I stomped upstairs with my daughter. We dove under the covers and settled in, her toes scratching against my leg.
“Momma,” she said. “Why does Daddy have to protect you all the time?” What did she mean? It’s not as if he led the way by shield and sword, or played bodyguard with gun and fist. But I knew she was referring to the awful (and often repeated) scene downstairs: Christopher rushing after me to interrupt some unfolding scene of self-damage.
“Well,” I said, “we’re married so we take care of each other.”
“But why does he protect you? Why is he always running after you and asking you questions about what you’re doing? Like, are you safe?”
Ahh. She wanted to know why he’s always asking me what (or if) I ate; why he’s always standing watch at the bathroom door; why he needs to know if I’m safe. Really, what she wanted to know is if I needed to be protected from myself. It’s why she likes to keep me close. Her body cuddled up against mine—toes on legs, fingers on arm. It is also why she and her brother insist I sleep in the middle, between them, so I can’t sneak out of bed, so they can keep me here.
“It’s my brain thing,” I finally said. “Daddy likes to protect me from my brain, when it isn’t working right.”
“Oh,” she said, “then why don’t you just go to your doctor and get more medicine?”
“Sometimes the medicine isn’t enough.”
“Do you think you should go back to the hospital?”
“Oh, no, sweetheart. I’ll be okay without the hospital.”
“Good. Because I want you to stay here.”
I reached over and tickled her in the armpit. “Got you in the birdie’s nest,” I said.
She giggled then tickled me back. I laughed, loudly, wanting to show here I was here, with her, right now.
“You’re laughing, Momma,” she announced. “You hardly ever laugh. And I’m making you laugh!”
Oh god. So I’ve been that bad. “You always make me laugh,” I said. “And I love you to infinity.”
“Good,” she said. “You should laugh more.” Then she flung herself back into the pillow, grabbed my hand, and went to sleep. And I stayed between my daughter and son, between their warm, tiny, necessary bodies. I prayed that I would be a momma who laughed and loved and lived. And then I went to sleep, safe and sound.