“There, there, human; you’re having a bad day.”—Critter, demonstrating the most profound, shattering, and healing grace when my soul is blistering and I can’t feel gratitude.
Morning comes. I’ve barely slept. My two-hour doze felt like a shower without soap and I feel outrageously ripped off.
I need sleep. Just one, glorious, fathoms-deep coma. A snoring, drooling, multi-cycle REM fugue. 35 hours or so should do it. I’ll be good as new, restored to human-like functioning and able to face the remaining years of parenthood and the distant decades of my life.
But I can’t have that. My six-year-old’s night-cough won’t let me sleep and I’m feeling the cold hand of dread on my chest warning that something very bad is coming on.
I sit on the side of my bed and stare at the red eyes of the alarm clock, weighing whether to get up and head straight for the shower or to smash it with a hammerfist first.
A sarcastic yawn behind me interrupts my ponder. I turn, and in the dim light I can just make out the silhouette of my imaginary raccoon, stretching theatrically.
“Or maybe the only real problem is your flair for drama,” she says. “I mean, kids get sick every day, right? Normal sick. Non-life-threatening sick. Plain old, snot-nosed, terrible hand-hygiene kind of sick.”
“Well, not so much for raccoon cubs,” she continues, “but it’s pretty much the defining experience of human childhood, would you say? Crusty shirtsleeves and nighttime coughs. That’s kids. This is not a tragedy. It’s just life.”
“But it’s killing me, Critter.” I whisper. “My brain is on fire. I can’t fucking do this much longer.”
“Sure you can,” she says and hops up on my shoulder. “You’ve just got to stop shitting the bed. Start taking care of you.”
I grind my molars. “You know I fucking hate it when you talk to me like a shit-munching know-it-all, right?”
“Yeah,” Critter yawns. “But do I care?”
She’s probably right. But I can’t say that to her now. I grab her under her armpits and drop her a little rougher-than-necessary on the floor. She lands on all fours and twists around to give me stink eye. Then she brushes off her shoulders and trots off.
I angrily tiptoe to the bathroom and sit on the toilet, her words still ringing in my ears.
“You’re shitting the bed,” she said. “Start taking care of you.”
Yes, but how? I’d love to stop shitting the bed and take care of me, but I can’t see a single thing I could change in this situation. How do I correct an error I can’t see?
It always comes back to that same question, doesn’t it? Whenever I feel like I’m drowning on dry land, the problem always turns out to be that I martyred myself. Like some kind of stupid, drama-addicted ape.
When I feel like my challenges are insurmountable, I’m usually failing to grasp perspective: distance, boundaries, realistic expectations. A small way I could ask for help that would make all the difference in the world.
I just can’t see it. Or I blind myself to the solution. Like the untouchably hopeless part of my soul won’t let my brain consider the fix, because it’s already decided nothing will ever help.
I know I’m missing something with this stupid night cough. I just don’t know what it is, and I feel like a fucking idiot. I hate feeling like this. What the bloody hell am I supposed to be doing?
I stumble through the morning. Find myself standing beside the car. The kids are already buckled up inside, thanks to my husband. I try to shake off the queasy fog of unreality as I pull our vehicle away from the snow-crusted curb. We’re basically on time. That’s good, I guess. Although I don’t even have the energy to stress about being late today. It’s all I can do to autopilot the truck to my oldest daughter’s school.
The weather is pretty warm. The streets are slushy. Gotta keep the wipers going almost non-stop.
The washer fluid’s getting low. I stare into the review mirror, giving short little squirts of smurf juice to the back window while the wiper squeaks a smeary little arc.
I’m zoned right in, trying to catch the exact moment when the glass comes clear so I can let go of the trigger and conserve every possible drop of that vital blue liquid.
My throat tightens as I imagine the next time the windshield will go opaque and I’ll press the washer button and nothing will come out. I’ll have an accident for sure. I’ll…
JESUS MARY FUCKBALLS!
I’m sliding into the exit lane, about to smash mirrors with a black SUV. It swerves onto the shoulder. I suck wind and brake hard. Behind me, headlights dip. I wring the wheel in my hands. The black truck zips past, weaves back into the lane in front of me, and speeds off.
My heart is jackhammering in my throat. Jesus Christ. I didn’t see that guy at all. Not at all. Where did he come from? Did he try to pass me while I exited? Or was he in my blind spot when I veered over? Did I even check? Oh, fuck me; I don’t remember checking. It’s usually automatic. Oh God. Is this what I do, now? Drive like a fucking drunk?!?
From the back seat, the three-year-old screams. “Noooooo!”
I flinch and start to turn around to look at her, then snap back forward. My heart bashes in my ears. Keep your eyes on the motherfucking road, dipshit!
“What’s wrong?” I ask with a high-pitched warble.
“No, no, no, NOOOOOOO!” my little one screams.
“Goddamn it! Tell me what’s wrong!”
My oldest answers for her; “Her bagel fell on the floor when you jerked the car,” she says.
Sweet titty-slapping Christ.
“I’m sorry Honey,” I moan. “Mommy’s sorry your food fell down.”
“Pick. it. UP!” the little one shrieks.
I take a breath. Eyes on the road. I’m not going to fucking swerve again. I’m not. “I can’t get it right now, Sweetheart. I’ll grab it for you it when we get stopped, okay? Mommy needs to drive right now.”
My pissed-off preschooler takes a huge breath and releases all her angst in a glass-cracking, blood-curdling gust. Then she pops her thumb into her mouth and slurps loudly as we finish the drive to her big sister’s school.
For the rest of the morning, my little one punishes me. At least, it feels that way. We go to the gym and she flops onto the floor when I ask her to take off her boots. In the bathroom, she bolts out of our stall and slams the door in another when I ask her to sit on the potty. She clings to me when I try to leave her in the daycare room, and ignores me when I come to pick her up. It takes us twenty inner-screaming minutes to get ourselves back outside to the car.
That’s where we find her bagel. Cream-cheese-down, smashed into the musty, wet carpet. Forgotten and stepped on, accusing, and righteously disgusted with me, as everything seems to be.
The day continues in that vein. By the time my Tiny Hitler goes down for her nap, we’re both ready for mutual annihilation.
I cancel a webchat with a work friend and curl up in a ball on top of my bed. My head is pounding. My eyes are burning. I just need sleep. God, I wish I could sleep.
I’m pretty sure my little bite-sized rage-a-holic feels the same way. We all need some fucking sleep. What the bleeding clusterfuck am I going to do tonight?
“You’re lucky,” Critter’s voice whispers in my ear. “Consider all you have.”
Fuck everything I have! I think. None of it can help me!
Hang on. That’s not true. One thing I have is my husband. Why the fuck don’t I enlist the deep-sleeping bastard in my nightly battle?
That night, when the coughing starts, I roll over, plant both my feet, and shove husband in the butt.
“You go help her,” I whisper.
He gets up, sleep-fogged. “Okay.” He comes back 30 seconds later. Slips back into bed and is snoring before the springs stop bouncing.
From down the hall, my daughter’s lungs continue to like a kickstart that never catches.
I kick my husband again. Hard this time. “Did you do the lemon?” I hiss.
“Nevermind! I’ll fucking do it!” I toss the blanket off me in a huff and quiet-stomp out of the room.
I go downstairs to fix the only thing that seems to slow the cough down: warm lemon water. It buys a couple of hours of mucus-thinning relief. With or without honey, doesn’t matter. I’ve learned this during the last fifteen nights of delirious trial and error.
While I squeeze a lemon wedge above the cup, squirting pulp all over my fingers and the counter and the front of my nightshirt, I grumble in my head; Why the fuck can’t my husband ever do this shit? Why can’t it ever cross his untroubled little mind???
I have no answer.
I bring the cup up to my daughter’s bedside. She’s asleep. Didn’t even wake herself up. I hesitate, then leave it on her bedstand. I slide back into bed.
Ten minutes later, she’s coughing again.
I jump to my feed and pound on the bed with both fists like a silverback who’s snapped.
My husband jumps from his enchanted sleep into the corner by the headboard, his ladder-long legs shrinking away from my insane shitfit as far as the space will allow.
I see him recoiling as I wail on our bed, denting twelve inches of cotton and foam and creaking steel springs. I smash and smash and smash like I’m trying to break it.
When I stop, my husband is still.
I can’t say I’m sorry. The cough comes again. I swallow my rage and head back to my girl’s room. This time I make her sit up. Take a sip. Try to get her to blow some of the throat-tickling stickiness out of her nose. She grunts a closed-mouth yell and flops over, turning her back to me.
I grab two fistfulls of my hair. What the fuck am I doing???
Critter’s words float back to me, “Take care of you.”
I stalk back down the hall and go back to bed. I lay there on the spot I just used as an anvil and my heart drums deafeningly in my ears. My teeth clench. My breaths come hard through my nose. My legs twitch.
My husband is lying very still. Too still to be asleep. I roll over. He rolls over.
What have I done? I just broke the unbreakable sleeper. Now none of us will get any sleep. I made it worse, and worse, and worse.
A tickle in my ear startles me, and I almost jump out of my skin. It’s Critter, her whiskers poking deep into my aural canal as she takes a breath to whisper; “Oh good!” she says. “You’re up!”
“I am not up. Fuck off. I’m trying to sleep.”
“Stop living a lie,” she says. “Come downstairs. I have snacks.”
The prospect of a snack softens the barbed wire in my belly. I wonder if she has cheese. I sigh, get up, and go downstairs.
Midway down the stairs, I pick up a whiff of something rotten. I stop.
“Oh perfect!” I mutter. “The little one has shat her goddamn pants in her goddamn sleep. This is exactly what we need right now: a lights-on, baby-crying, eighteen-wiping, eye-watering, fecal horror cleanup!”
I laugh inside like a lunatic and climb back up to the second floor. I stick my face into the little one’s room. I snort deeply. No poop.
What the fuck???
I head back downstairs, and realize the smell is getting stronger as I near the main floor. On the last stair, the smell hits me like heavy bag full of diapers.
“What the fucking fuck?” I hiss and step into the kitchen where I take in the horror.
Critter has spread a buffet on the table—the week’s contents of the compost bin.
She looks up and sees me gagging in the doorway. “Yay, you came!” she says around a nasty mouthful. She claps her little hands.
I step closer, deeper into the nightmare. Critter grins, then carries on crunching her mouthful of KFC bones from last Sunday. I can hear the gristle popping between her teeth. A splash of vomit leaps into my mouth.
Critter swallows and spreads her arms like Vanna White. “Don’t you see? You’re surrounded by a bounty of good fortune! Got enough food to suffocate your whole family. Scratch that, you could feed the entire North American raccoon army.”
“Good fortune?” I whisper. “Here’s what I think of my good fortune!” I step into the table, scoop a handful of sludge in my right hand, wind up, and fling it over Critter’s shoulder at the pantry door. SPLAT. I reload and fire again. Again and again, shouting, flinging, smashing.
Apple cores and cucumber nubs bounce off the door with dull thuds. Carrot peels dangle from splattered lumps of oatmeal, then they slowly curl away in a weird swandive to splat on the floor. A handful of shredded cabbage, too dry to fly far, flutters down on Critter’s shoulders like snow.
I throw and throw and throw until there’s nothing left of her raccoon feast but putrid spackle and shrivelled confetti. She stares at me, mouth agape. I break off and bawl into my folded arms. I come up with mashed potatoes in my hair.
“I wish I could be grateful, Critter. Goddamn it, I really do. I just can’t. I can’t. I’m fucking ruined.”
I collapse into a chair, close my eyes, and sob open-mouthed for what feels like a year. After a while, Critter tiptoes over and sits on the table by my shoulder. I put my face in my hands and she gently pats my hair.
“There, there, human,” she soothes. “You’re having a bad a day.”
I lift my face and laugh so loud I’m sure it will wake the kids. But thankfully, Critter’s magic seems to wrap a cone of silence around my hysterics. I sober up with a sniff when I realize I’m truly thankful for that.
“Oh my god, Critter,” I say, wiping with the back of my wrist at the trails of tears running through the filth on my face. “I… I’m so fucking… Jesus. I needed that. You gave me… I can’t even think what. Just, thank you. Thank you so fucking much. And I’m really sorry about your buffet.”
“You’re fucking welcome,” she says, grinning. “And it’s alright. I love a good food fight.” She leans in to lick some gravy off my cheek. I jump because her whiskers tickle and it makes me want to scream.
“Stop! No. I’ll take a shower. Thanks, though.”
“Suit yourself,” she sighs. We both survey the damage.
I groan. Grab the roll of paper towels. Groan some more.
Critter laughs. “Listen,” she says. “Normally I’d say you should face the music for this tomfoolery, but I don’t think that’s what you need tonight. You go get the bacon grease out of your hair, and I’ll call in some favours to get this all cleaned up.”
“Wow. Really?” I ask.
“You bet,” she says. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll figure all of this out. For now, go sleep.”
“Ok,” I say. Then I yawn and scrub my eyes like a toddler.
We’ll figure this out tomorrow.