What a shit day. I feel guilty saying this, since my kid is well and uninjured, but what a goddamn effing shit of a day. He wakes up before 5:00am, right as I pour my first cup of tea from the pot.
No matter when I pour that first cup of tea, I never get to sip it unmolested. He wakes within the same 90 minute segment of any given morning, but regardless of which particular moment, it is timed to my first sip of tea. I am stealth itself. I make absolutely no noise filling the kettle, pulling down the tea tin, setting a cup at the ready. I trip the automatic shut-off toggle before it can make its soft click at the boil. I ease open the sticky fridge gasket when I reach in for the milk. I flip my hour-glass timer on its tiny rubber feet: 3 minutes’ worth of green sand to signal the ideal brew time. But ideal doesn’t really enter the picture. Somewhere during this hushed ceremony a child stirs upstairs, a boy with preternatural hearing, ears attuned to wake at the silent frequencies of my tea-making.
He calls me from above.
“Mama, can I get up now? Can you come get me?” Mama. MAMA. Can you come up here? COME UP HERE.”
I answer “yes” between all of these sentences and fragments, but he either doesn’t hear me or pretends not to. I answer at all because I think this will buy me the time I need to finish straining the leaves, pour the milk and actually take one pull off the scalding top of my breakfast cup. (It’s a “jumbo,” as per Stoke-on-Trent terminology, told to me by the “manageress” of Royal Crown Duchy nearly twenty years ago. Strange, I remember a button gone from her white lab coat.) But time will not be bought. I find myself taking the first sip while I walk toward the stairs, the first swallow as I climb, deafened by the unremitting urgency drawing me up and away.
Deaf is a good analogy. I can’t hear anything but him. Can’t hear my own needs, no matter how basic. How often do I realize I’ve had to pee for ages, or that I’m thirsty as all get-out, or my blood sugar dropped to hell half an hour ago? Forget about swimming at 5:30am or taking a walk or lying on the floor for a stretch. Forget about planning dinner or keeping the grout white or taking back Target returns or vacuuming dog hair. And do not even imagine I can hear the still, small voice of whatever constitutes my writing work. Not while he’s around, no way.
“Self-care” my counselor called it. She was helpful, but she wasn’t on Blue Cross and I couldn’t fork out $140 cash every session Saving $140 was a lesson on self-care in itself, since I cared deeply that I stay out of consumer debt and have enough money to fix the toilet and buy groceries. But I totally suck at self-care. Everything and everyone else comes first. They are the alpha, I am the omega. Or rather, they are the aleph and I am the tav. I don’t need to pay a counselor to tell me this is my mom’s fault. Of course it is my mom’s fault. She modeled poor self-care skills from the get-go, but look what kind of crazy was modeled for her. She was lucky to get out of Lake City alive. No, my mom did her best and still does, but she totally sucks at self-care, too. Knowing this is slightly helpful, but what would really help is knowing how to suddenly hear my own needs and actually listen to them. To pee, yes, and drink and eat, and even to carve out space and time enough to think and read and write and breathe. And to have at least one good cup of tea in peace. Or the first sip of one.
I am perfectly aware of how lucky I am. I am grateful. Every day I think about and voice my gratitude. I’m happy to have a washing machine, one working toilet out of two, a decent car, a good school, a sugar maple in the front yard. The big happy, of course, are my husband and children. I live in morbid dread of any harm befalling them. I try to savor every minute that is now.
A few years ago I heard a popular parenting expert say gratitude and anxiety were mutually exclusive. He proclaimed this as part of a plan to curb all-too-common adolescent anxieties, and suggested that to cultivate gratitude is to nip anxiety in the bud. This sounded plausible at the time, but the more I’ve thought about it, the less true it feels. I can be massively grateful and terrifyingly anxious at the very same time. I do it every day. It is what I do, what I am. I am the expert on this one, sir.
But all I really want right now is a cup of tea.