He stands and clamps his hands tightly over his ears in the darkened theater. His seat at the end of the row of all of his friends is too far away from me to reach quickly.
“I don’t like it,” he yells. “Get me out of here.”
It’s not the scary part of the movie. The theater is quiet. It’s intense emotion that gets Garrett every time. The uncomfortable moments, any embarrassment or misunderstanding, send the child scrambling for cover. In this case, a baby penguin’s anger and frustration with his father. I squeeze down the row, tripping over feet and handbags and crunching popcorn into the cement floor, stifling my giggles, not at him, but at his over the top reaction and the ridiculous disturbance I’m making trying to reach him.
“Garrett it’s okay.” I am finally behind him.
“Nah-ah, I DO NOT LIKE IT.”
“I’ll sit with you. It will be over in a minute. Remember? These situations resolve, that means that they end when everyone understands the feelings.”
He is so like me. Sensitive and in tune to the emotional discomfort of others, but awkward and unwieldy in his response, unable to avoid making the moment more difficult with his reaction. The empathy is there and it just keeps propelling us into the fray over and over, our feet in our mouths, our heads spinning.
“Quinn?” I stop him at the bathroom door. “Did you wipe and wash your hands?” It has come to my attention via the tattle system that Quinn does not always avail himself of all required clean up options.
“Quinn, you have to wipe, it’s not okay.”
He cocks his head to the side and regards me with studied nonchalance. “Sometimes,” he proffers, “I take shortcuts.”
I don’t know if you can define “cool” but as a Supreme Court justice once famously said about another four letter word, I know it when I see it. I think it can be found somewhere in Quinn’s casual confidence and easiness with the world. He always has an answer and it never occurs to him that others won’t accept it. They usually do. I often do. I bite my lip now to keep from laughing. Garrett would squirm to be interrogated on such a personal topic; Saige would cry, believing herself in trouble. Quinn turns it around immediately. He assumes everyone is on his side.
“I like shortcuts. I’m a shortcut expert.”
You’re a bullshit expert, my little son, but you are good, I will give you that. How far will it get you, I wonder? Cool is attractive, but it can be very shallow.
The metal walls of the car press in on me and the scarf around my neck pulls too tight. I’m sitting on the end, but I can’t get it free. She wails on repeat at the top of her lungs, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not faiiiiirrrrrr!” Still in the parking lot, I maneuver the van to the curb, throw it in park and turn around.
“Eyes. I want eyes.” She meets my gaze, furiously defiant. “We talked about this last night and on the way to the movies. You and Quinn lost your treats. You had popcorn. We will have lunch when we get home, but you are not having that chocolate bar. It is your choice, but screaming at me in the car is not allowed and if you continue to do it you will owe me each minute that I endure the noise in your room when we get home and only silent time in your room will count.”
I have covered it all, but I know it won’t work. It is a pattern we can not break. In these encounters, she flings herself wildly off of the cliff of injustice and rage. There is no parachute. She can not – or will not – bring it back. We hit terminal velocity and then the ground almost every time.
Half way home, vibrating internally with fury at the shrieking temper tantrum, I ask Quinn, more in honest curiousity than to make a point to Saige, “Why aren’t you crying about your treat? Aren’t you sad?”
“Aw, yeah, I’m sad.” He states it in his matter-of-fact, Andy Griffith way with his lisp and his hands in his coat pockets. “But, I don’t want to go to my room, I want to go hiking with Daddy.”
“Well. That’s … smart.” I respond over the increased volume of Saige’s outraged screams. Her anger is more important to her than any reason or consequence or rationality. It burns too hot to quell.
She stops screaming as we turn into the driveway in an attempt to avoid forty minutes in her room, but it’s far too late. Unsurprisingly, there is another member of the family whose anger and resentment burns brightly, if more quietly, and whose sense of injustice is finely honed and she WILL have her forty minutes of silence. The source of some things becomes, perhaps, a bit more clear.
“Garrett, it’s your turn to unbuckle the baby for me please.”
“Awwwww. Why do I have to do it? I don’t want to. I can’t get it; it hurts my hand. Why do I always have to do it?”
“You don’t, we take turns.”
“I’ll do it!” Says Miss Suddenly Peaches and Light. “Nater Skater, should I do your buckle? Do you want to get down? Ready? JUMP!”
“No, it’s …” I trail off frustrated. We have never failed to take turns. I ask the boys to help me just as often as I ask Saige. I think the nurture is the same and yet she showers loving mothering on his head while Garrett and Quinn ignore him or torture him in equal parts.
I sit at the fulcrum of an unsteady teeter-totter. Her kindness balanced against her red hot rage. Sensitivity balanced against reactivity and stubbornness. Unstudied people-skills balanced against callousness. I take a breath, slow and steady. In and out. Realizing it again for the first and thousandth time.
They are mine to raise and mine to love and mine to teach. I can tell them and I can guide them. I can show them. I can try not to yell at them (and fail). I can ask them. I can even beg them. But, my god, as they grow I see more and more that they are who they are. Beautiful and terrible. And they are not mine to change.