Not even the fresh scent of ink pressed into paper could revive the dead.
That’s me, a zombie just going through the motions of life without really feeling anything. Everything I do – from the endless sinks of rainbow-colored plates covered in sticky goo and breaded bits of dino-shaped chicken, to the heaps of laundry splattered with mysterious stains – I do because I have to, even though it consumes every moment of every day.
I pass the coffee counter, carefully navigating the double-wide stroller around the towering piles of books stacked waist-high in the center aisle, ignoring the twinge of jealousy for the woman sitting alone in a quiet corner.
Gone are the days when I had time to do anything I wanted. I used to go to concerts. I used to golf. I used to write… oh, how I loved to write. I’d spend hours immersed in one fictional world or another, never remembering that a real world existed beyond my four office walls. I could go days without food – or a shower if I had to – if that’s what it took to get my burning thoughts on paper.
But now…now my life is different. Now my life is not my own.
The endless rows of hardbound books, the soft rustle of pages being turned, the mammoth bookstore attached to the mall tries to awaken my senses as a familiar title glares at me from the overstocked shelf: WRITING THE BREAKTHROUGH NOVEL. There were a dozen other books just like it at home in my dusty, forgotten writer’s den.
How long had it been, a year, maybe two? Hard to remember.
Maybe I don’t want to.
My fingers twitch as if the involuntary memories of pounding words into a keyboard have become too much for them ignore.
It’s not that I don’t want to write, or that I don’t have anything to say, it’s that I’m broken. Broken by circumstance. Broken by conscience. Broken…from the inside out.
Not that I complain. Oh, no! When I got the phone call – the one that said my son was in jail and his girlfriend of three years was being evicted with my grandchildren – I took those babies without question and I’ve loved them and cared for them as though they were born to me. I had voluntarily given up the only true passion I’d ever had out of duty and love.
Love is just another four letter word that convinces people to do stupid things, no matter how valiant their intentions might be. My friends – and even strangers who hear my story – call me a saint. That’s ridiculous. My husband and I did what anyone would do. We adopted our grandchildren to save them from a life doomed to poverty, abuse and neglect.
I had to do it. I couldn’t have lived with myself otherwise. Would I change it if I could? I wonder.
I don’t know.
“Nonnie, Nonnie I want this one. Will you read this one…please?” my sweet Emma Lu sings, as her pink Mary-Janes dance on the spot.
My granddaughter turned daughter is beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because that’s what everyone says. She’s truly as pretty as a porcelain doll. Her biological mother is Filipino and my son is of European-Jewish descent, together they made the prettiest children. Her skin is like tawny silk, her dark eyes are framed by thick, dark lashes and her lips are watermelon red. But it’s her electric smile and outgoing personality that draws anyone within a fifty-foot radius to her.
“Me too! Me too! This-s one too! Pretty pleeease?” Mason squirms in his stroller, itching to be free and touch everything his round eyes can see.
The boy, a cookie-cutter image of my granddaughter, is a year younger and not bad for a terrible two. He wants to do everything his sister does. He takes (or at least tries to) every toy she’s interested in and repeats everything she says by adding a “too” at the end. It’s quite cute.
I look at him now, dressed in his favorite button-down – the one he says is like Poppie’s – trying desperately to reach everything with his chubby little fingers. He’s so much like my son, soft curly hair that wings out over his ears, only a tiny sparkle of mischief in his eyes, but enough that I keep a close eye on him.
“You guys want me to read to you? That’s crazy,” I tease.
“No, we do, we do,” Emma squeals, enjoying the game.
“Me do, too, Nonnie,” Mason adds.
Tiny threads of joy stitch the corners of my broken heart together as they peer up at me, so eager to hear a story that some author slaved over for countless days, months, years, making sure each word choice was just right.
They both love books.
Pangs of grief and nostalgia needle their way into my chest as memories of being in bookstores with my older children flood over me.
Books were the one thing I never denied them – no matter how broke we were – if they wanted a book, I found a way to get it [legally] for them. I was so sure I was being a good parent. Four of my five children grew up to be wonderfully responsible adults.
Remorse floods my heart with an ocean of helplessness. My son…he used to be anyway…is lost to me, maybe forever.
Where’d I go wrong? I question, digging my nails into the meaty flesh on my palm.
Emma waves the books under my face, desperate for me to acknowledge her as my thoughts drift, watching the enchantment sparkle in her eyes. My husband and I are quite a bit more established than we were our first time raising a family, it would be easy to go crazy and let these two have everything they want.
But I don’t.
I don’t want to ruin them. I want them to understand the value of imagination and what it can make a person create. Imagination is the key to a person’s soul, whether through art or invention, or just to let themselves go in whatever passion grabs them. But being free to conjure something from nothing is an experience I want them to have.
I reach down, considering Emma’s choice of in-store narrative. The jacket is covered in beautifully-illustrated pirates, ships and fish.
“Ooh, what did you find? An adventure book?” I squat to her level, squeezing her shoulders and kissing her soft, squishy cheek. She smells of gumdrops.
“Me too! Me too!” wails Mason.
“Shhh, inside voice,” I remind him. “You want to hear the story too?”
“Uh huh. Me too. Me too.” His little fingers try to undo his safety harness.
“Okay, hang on there, Houdini.”
The moment he’s free, he runs through the kid-corner shouting, “Wook! Wook!”
“Shhh, I see honey, but remember we use inside voices,” I remind him for the two-hundredth time that day. “Here, come sit and I’ll read.”
Like everything else in my life, this outing feels redundant. Not only do I repeat myself a thousand times a day, but I have already done the raising-a-family gig. I’ve changed the gag-inducing diapers and survived potty-training a half-dozen times. I’ve taught kids how to read and to remember to use their manners. I’ve already paid my dues and earned my empty-nest freedom.
Still, as I read the story, déjà vu creeps in and I remember that I’ve already had the tiny house with the huge mortgage. I’ve sat in the bleachers and cheered. I’ve dared gather laundry out of our teenaged sons’ rooms. I’m middle-aged, not twenty-something, I don’t have the energy to do this…again.
Is this punishment for surviving five children? I shut off my new mini-van (Lord help me, I can’t believe I drive a mini-van), open the automatic doors and release one sleeping child from his car seat.
I suppose at first I thought this was some type of karmic punishment. I thought somewhere in my past – maybe even a past life – I’d wronged someone and this was my penalty, to be an eternal mother. I did the math. By the time my now youngest child graduates from high school I will have raised children for fifty years. It didn’t matter that I’d already sacrificed my youth to my children, now I have to surrender the last few youthful years I have left on this earth.
I could look at it like that I suppose.
But something miraculous happens when children are sleeping. The pain and trials of parenthood instantly disappear and when the babies wake anew, so too do I. Their precious faces shining up at me so eagerly, hanging on every word I’m about to read again, only this time…
… I enjoy it.
As I open the book and begin to read the magic from within, I’m transported back to a time when being a mother was all I ever wanted. A time when the highlight of my day was watching the joy on my family’s faces as they devoured my lasagna, back to a time when vacuuming the closets was the most important thing I’d do that day and I remember…
I remember what made me want to write in the first place.
I wanted to write for the young and the young-at-heart. I wanted to write for all of the children I can’t make blueberry pancakes for before they catch the bus. I wanted to write to touch the lives of those who don’t have someone in their corner. I wanted to write because I know how they feel, alone and afraid.
That was the childhood I’d had. That was the childhood I’d escaped from by way of enchanted literary portals.
But if why I write is for other people, for children who find themselves alone, then shouldn’t I find even more joy in giving that happiness to these children in person?
The answer is yes.
With elation and fervor I read Michael Recycle and Bootleg Peg again, this time with all of the voices I could dream up, and I stacked that book back in the bookshelf with conviction. From that point on, whenever I’m wondering what the heck I’m doing here, I go find that book and cuddle my babies close to me and I read (I’ve now mastered the fishy-pirate voices).
“Nonnie?” Emma asks one night before bed, her expression thoughtful and dreamy.
“Hmmm?” I sigh, closing our much loved book once again.
“Thanks for loving me. You’re my favorite,” she sings, squeezing my arm.
“And you’re mine.” I pull her precious little head to my face, planting a kiss in her grape-scented hair.
With both babes huddled against me, I have no doubt this is where I belong. No matter how many stories blaze inside me, dying to be set free, this is the story that must first be told.