Marlo is sitting in my lap, her feet draped just over the edge of my knees. I hold her close, press my nose into her fine blonde hair while she takes a small mound of blue clay and tries to mold it into a circle. Her body is so tiny, so perfectly shaped for the space against my chest. I will wake up tomorrow and she will be gone, off living her life without me, joy and agony sweeping up against her because my back is no longer big enough to shield it all.
I reach down and hold her foot in my palm. I trace all five of her toes and stop on the smallest one. I draw outlines, fold them up and tuck them away so that at some point I can take them out, lay them flat and run my fingers along the memory.
Leta is busy gathering pillows to build a fort next to the back door. Pillows from the couch, from her bedroom, from the outdoor furniture we brought inside for the winter. Her arms and legs stretch like cross-country roads now, endless and winding and nothing like the stout, dimpled elbows I used to cradle in bed while we watched cartoons.
She throws another pillow onto the pile and then stops, inspects her work and turns to me.
“Mom?” she asks. She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Why does Dad not sleep here anymore?”
I swallow. She can probably hear it. I let go of Marlo’s foot to tuck my hair behind my ear. I hope my voice doesn’t shake.
“You know when you’re playing with Marlo and need to take a break?” I answer. “You’ll go upstairs because you want to be by yourself. Because that’s what you need.”
“Yeah,” she says, and it sounds like a question.
“Well, sometimes adults need that kind of break, that kind of distance. Dad and I are taking a break.”
She curls her mouth, an outward sign that she’s trying to piece this together. “Is that what you guys need?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I answer. “It’s something we need. And it has nothing to do with you or Marlo or anyone else. It’s just me and Dad.”
“Okay,” she says as she shrugs her shoulders. Without hesitation she runs to find another pillow.
My emotions sit at the bottom of my eyes. I blink often to keep them from rising any higher. In order to get through the day I pretend I’m in a pool, and before I go under water I exhale until there is no more air in my lungs. I sink to the floor and feel the weight of the water all around me, holding me down, blocking out all the noise. Down there I can move my arms and legs and cook dinner and read stories at bedtime.
But my body inevitably revolts and sends me shooting to the surface. I gasp desperately for air, sputtering, and sometimes the water that splashes up from my face makes its way into the words on this page.
The still aching ten-year-old Heather is screaming at me, angry and raw and hurt that this is happening. This isn’t fair. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night I can hear the rapid beating heart of my ten-year-old self as I sat in my father’s lap listening to Air Supply, his tears burning my forehead as he wondered aloud about how things could go so wrong.
How do things go so wrong?
I had put Leta to bed, and then somehow I was standing in the garage with a dog leash in my hand looking up at a pipe running along the ceiling. I don’t remember walking from her room down the stairs, but I looked around at all of this, all of this that I hold together — all of this that is supposed to be perfect and satisfying and perhaps even enviable — and the dog leash made sense. The only way out of my unhappiness was to take myself out of it. The only way out. The only way.
I was sane enough to walk away from that moment, one that occurred a while ago, and standing up to that hopelessness has only made me stronger. But I’m still trying to figure out how I got to the garage in the first place. Because this isn’t a chemical issue. I wish a pill would make all this ongoing, unbearable pain go away.
I’m sad and devastated, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more stable than I am right now.
No, this is me facing a list of issues that I have neglected, issues that have subsequently settled like dust to the bottom of my soul. And a few weeks of intense running, time spent alone on sidewalks tripping over limitations and physical pain have stirred it all up in a giant, suffocating cloud.
The girls are doing incredibly well. They are our top priority, and the time we spend with them individually is of course made so much more precious. They are surrounded by people who love them, and since I have experience being on their end of things I’m hyper aware of how they are making their way through this. We’ve kept certain things relatively normal for them, as much as we possibly can given the circumstances. They miss their dad in the morning, and I let them feel that emotion without any interference. I have to honor what they are feeling. And then I hug them and tell them that I understand.
Because I do. I understand.
I hope you will at least try to and bear with me as I linger a bit underwater.