A few weeks ago, while finishing a 20,000 word ebook for a client, my thumb really started to hurt. I mean, it really started hurting. The lower joint was swollen, and it felt a bit unstable.
So I did what any freelance writer would do: I Google searched. I dunno. None of the symptoms matched exactly. It could be arthritis or tendonitis, hopefully the latter. A wrist brace and icing seemed like universal remedies, so I went to Walgreens and purchased a black device with three elastic bands that wrap snugly around the hand and wrist.
“What is that thing? That looks dumb.”
Almost twelve years old and starting middle school this year, Charlotte isn’t shy about letting me know how she feels.
“You look stupid with that on. Mom, are you going to wear that to teach?”
Some people would be horrified by the way my daughter and I speak to each other. There is a lot of yelling in my house. Every once in a while I explode because, oh my GOD, there is a pair of socks sitting on the couch again. She, on the other hand, explodes because I tell her that the essay she showed me is okay but would be better with some concrete examples.
“You’re supposed to say good things! Only good things! Do you get that! I’m not showing you anything ever again!”
I don’t mind. The expression of strong feelings, even negative ones, is encouraged in my house. I would rather have C throwing a pillow on the ground repeatedly and screaming “I am mad!’ than bottling it up inside the way she did for a year or more after Larry left.
Her anger is cathartic and productive. She will dust herself off and write a terrific revision of the essay. She will reflect on an unkind thing she said and offer a hug and a sincere apology.
One positive thing that I can say about myself as a parent is I have taken responsibility for my own yelling and anger, owned it as a character flaw, and spent significant time with her on repair. I have also taken appropriate actions to deal with my emotions, including therapy and a low dose of antidepressant medication to cope with menopausal depression.
I still yell. But things don’t get too out of hand anymore.
The main thing is I don’t see myself as a natural parent. For one thing, I’m an introvert and a highly sensitive person. I can feel another person’s emotions whether they express them or not, and I have a tendency to personalize. I find it draining, sometimes unbearable, to be around people.
Add to that the fact that I waited until the age of 44 to bring a child into my life, factor in a bad marriage and divorce, and it’s a wonder I have made it this long.
We’ve had some hard times, me and C.
Some trying times that made us both feel sad and insufficient.
The first time the wrist brace disappeared, I looked all over the house for it. Our standard poodle, Gizmo, followed me from room to room, jumping on each bed and looking at me expectantly, wanting to play.
As fate would have it, he is a highly sensitive dog. It’s a sensitive breed, for one thing, and I picked the wrong dog for our family. I was offered the choice between two kid-friendly pups; one was mellow, and the other was a fireball. My ex wanted the fireball because he was going to take up jogging again.
The fireball is highly strung and a bit neurotic, probably because he doesn’t get enough exercise. The last time I kenneled him, he was rail thin when I picked him up at the end of two weeks because he never stopped playing with the other dogs.
When C and I yell at each other, Gizmo stands at attention, looking distressed. It’s clear that he is personalizing, feeling like a bad dog.
He’s been a lifesaver for us both. We alternate nights sleeping with him. We sign off messages when C is at her dad’s with poodle images. He even went with us to therapy, where the psychologist tried unsuccessfully to relax him with therapeutic massage.
When C was still in elementary school, he came along for the ride. As he pranced happily along the grounds and through the hallways, dozens of hands reached out to pat his head and sides.
We relished our identity as Gizmo’s people at those moments. Joyful and easy, he let us focus on something besides our stress and sadness.
I finally found the hand brace stuck to the underside of C’s new duvet.
“I wore it to bed last night.”
I shook my head wryly. “Your hand’s not hurting.”
“Mom. It’s comfortable.”
Gizmo must have thought so, too. The next time the brace went missing, it was in the dog’s bed. I picked it up and examined it. He hadn’t done any damage to it. Like my daughter, it was just something he had to have.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here.
I remember when Larry and I decided to adopt C. I was terrified. I didn’t think I could be a mom. I wanted to back out. I was sure I would screw things up.
I remember walking through the Hong Kong airport with Charlotte in my arms. Hallways, temperature scans, the Kafkaesque passage from mainland China back into the western world. Each time I paused to wait in line or check the flight information, I looked down, and her eyes met mine. She was trusting me. She didn’t have to, and maybe she knew she didn’t have a choice.
But no, it was more than that.
It’s been the same with Gizmo. As much as my ex lacked faith in me, the dog was always by my side. A woman smiled kindly at me one day when I was walking him.
“Your dog keeps looking at you.”
What if what they see in me is true? What if taking my things makes them feel secure because I am the one who will be there for them? What if I was the nurturer all along?
It’s something to think about.
Cover image is cropped from the original “Presenting Cooper,” by Perry McKenna.