I wake up Monday morning, head in a fog and the sky a heavy gray. Maybe I need to pick up the pace on our Lord of the Rings bedtime reading, finish the series and find something lighter to read to the boys: This morning’s gray resembles a specter, a phantom seeping through the windows.
There is light, too. It’s April in Alaska. We wake to light now, but today it’s muted by the undeniable presence of sagging clouds gathered and draped across the Chugach mountains, shrouding them from view. But at 7a.m. in April, the dance between light and dark in Anchorage feels, for my East coast origins and conditioning, properly balanced, stable, “normal.”
“Be grateful,” I growl to no one but me.
Still, I hesitate to rise, to sit up. I rub my hand around my face, press my fingers into my eyes.
I was up till midnight grading papers, a task that segued into restlessly mulling over a number of personal matters while I thrashed around under the covers. At 3 a.m., my seven-year-old, Matt, leapt into bed with me on the heels of a bad dream. Once asleep, he proceeded to kick me through the night – an unintended reminder he was close.
I hear Matt sifting through his Lego drawers in his room across the hall.
Over a swift and admittedly pouty, self-pitying moment, I envy my sister in Virginia, who lives across the street from my parents and can frequently ask them to assist with carpooling or hosting her three daughters.
I also think of my married friends. Envy tag-team parenting for the “bazillionth” time since my boys’ mom and I split in 2011.
“Stop,” I growl. Remember: We’re here. Here and nowhere else. And we’re doing our best.
Some days, it’s hard to know.
I swing my legs over the bed.
I’m reminded of a montage scene set to feel-good music in Judd Apatow’s This is Forty, where Paul Rudd adoringly wakes his daughters for school – affectionately tousling one’s hair, canoodling the other, and playfully rubbing his hand around his teenage daughter’s face.
So, I “Power Up” – I motivate, inhale some of whatever so enviably possesses Paul Rudd characters. I breeze into the boys room and cheerily declare a robust, “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”
Matt, from his place on the floor, amidst the rubble of his Legos, looks up at me doe-eyed and crestfallen and meekly whimpers, “Pop? Do we have to go to school today?”
He’s still in his pajamas and between his strawberry-blonde bedhead and the spaceship designs stretching across his rail thin limbs, and his childhood-specific pot-belly rounding through his top, I am utterly smitten and vulnerably open to complying with anything he wants.
No! I want to tell him. No, we don’t! No school today! No work! Today we’re building forts in the living room and watching all the Star Wars movies! While eating Pirate’s Booty and ice cream and PB&J! I’ll tell work we took a, a, a Family Care Day, because our “us” is more important than desk work, than paper pushing and Microsoft Outlook; more important than racing you guys to school and then racing to grab you at after care, and then slogging through rush hour traffic and trying to make and eat dinner before 7pm and then bathe and read LOTR at a sane hour so that we can rise rested to start the whole rat race all over again tomorrow!
Instead, I sigh and tell him, “Oh, buddy, I know. I know. I used to want to skip school so many times when I was a boy.” He limply groans and sighs.
Sam’s body shifts under his blankets. Limbs akimbo, he slowly snakes them towards himself and then out again, stretching awake. He blinks a few times and sits up. He rubs his eyes and smiles.
Sam, for all eleven of his years, has possessed the magical ability to welcome each day the way you can imagine the Dalai Lama does. Or Mary Oliver. His waking hours are one long embrace of everything and anything around him, so much so that I’ve often wondered where he really came from, if the stork accidentally brought his mom and me a congenial ambassador or motivational speaker’s child. Never mind getting Sam into commercials or acting, as some have suggested: I often think he’s on the verge of presenting a viral TED talk, or might go solve the world’s problems with Bono.
Today, as with every day, Sam looks around, all smiles and sparkle.
“Good morning,” he sighs, standing.
“It’s dark out there,” he notes peering through his window, “do you think it’s going to rain today?”
“Might,” I reply. “Looks like it.”
Sam stretches once more and bounds to his dresser and pulls out some clothes.
“Wow,” he sighs, “I am so tired.”
Just say the word, I clamor inside. Say it. Say something like, “Can we not do this today, Pop? The weekday runaway train thing we do?”
I stand thoroughly poised to call a sick day, to announce “Fort Building Day.”
He turns and proceeds towards the bathroom.
“Take a load off, Fanny!” he sings.
Ok, wait. No fair. He’s boldly singing the chorus to my favorite pick-me-up song. The one I play on the stereo the way others take a daily vitamin.
“…Take a load off, Fanny!” he continues, running the bathroom faucet, “Annnnnnnnnnddd!…Put the load right on meeee!!!”
I look at Matt.
“Ok, buddy. Time to get dressed.”
Matt sighs and groans, pouts. I want to tell him, as Sam’s dutifully reminding me only by the way he embraces a day, something about how we’re in this together, that we can do this, and that every day is somehow always in some way infused with surprising moments of joy, of grace. I want to tell him all that, but he’s seven, and I can’t expect him to agree or understand now.
I pat the top of his head, and he leans his head on my knee. I tell him only, “I know. I know.” Because I do.
There’s a balance to strike somewhere in all of this, adrift as I often feel we are, alone together and striving to keep up with the pace of things in the terrifying, stark, and beautiful spaces we find ourselves. Rather, I imagine, or I hope there is.
I lean one way and then the other, stroking Matt’s hair, wobbly and wavering.