Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Head and the Heart

The band is from Seattle, where I lived for a year half a lifetime ago. I try and focus on the strings and drums and words, to let the music swirl around me. But most of my attention is on my son Max and his friend Iza. They shriek with joy, tossing fistfuls of grass at Iza’s dad, Patrick. I laugh, too, and I listen. I glance around the large crowd a bit; it’s an eclectic mix of families, teenagers and older couples.
My friend Dorota, who sits next to me, asks, “Have you ever been to Seattle?”
“Yeah, I actually used to live there.”
“Really? How old were you?”
“Twenty,” I say. This is what happens when you become friends because your kids are the same age. You start off in small conversations, a baby clamped to your breast. You talk about the babies and how they eat and sleep. Slowly, over the years, between trying to stop the kids from hitting each other or running into the road, between feeding them and fielding a constant stream of hey, mom’s, you weave in stories about your own life. The parts of you underneath all the diapers and bisected grapes, all the fatigue and fidelity, and slowly, you find out what each other’s lives were like in that alternate reality Before Children. And if you are lucky, and Dorota and I are, you find out that the Before Children versions of you would have been friends, too.
“Twenty,” she says. She shakes her head and smiles. “Can you imagine?” I imagine we are both thinking all that freedom. All that youth. We will both turn forty within the coming year. I think for a moment about that twenty-year-old me, and how she is both still completely me and not at all me.
The kids are screeching, and before I can shush, a lady with red glasses yells at us. I assume she’s telling us our kids are too loud, or that we’re outrageous failures as parents, but I honestly can’t hear a word she’s saying. I just see her angry red lips moving and her narrowed eyes beneath the red glasses. Her husband stares at us like a principal. We gather the kids and try and separate them in hopes of dampening their volume.

At twenty, I had short, purple-tinted hair, a beautiful little loft apartment, my parents’ full financial support, and I was miserable. Which seems impossible, because I was so free. So much of what I struggle with now comes from being so tethered, so owned, so consumed by our kids. I want to tell Dorota about how lonely I was, and how I used to chain smoke on the roof of my apartment while scribbling out lyrics to songs no one would ever hear. How I didn’t know how to make friends. I want to tell her about the beautiful little loft with candles everywhere, and how I couldn’t enjoy it because I was so completely untethered, so alone in that big, wet city. But I can’t say any of this because the music fills up the air and I’m trying to divide my attention between the sweet sounds and keeping my kid from making the lady with glasses yell at us again.
It is after nine now and Max is fading fast. He morphs from the bright-eyed, excited kid who gets to stay out past bedtime with mom, to a wiggling, pushing, irrational version of himself. Every time I try and exchange a sentence or two with Dorota, he karate chops the space between us. The sky has turned navy and the band is finally playing their hit song, “Down in the Valley.” I pick Max up and he is wriggly and yelling, “I don’t like being a kid!” I want to tell him to enjoy it, please, please enjoy it, because it feels like just yesterday that all I had to do was ride my bike in wide loops around my neighborhood, and today my to-do-list is as long as those loops.
Instead, I close my eyes and the music sinks into my blood and I breathe. I just want to swallow the song, but Max is kicking at my shins and I can only give the song a sliver of my attention. And at the same time, I am a little bit afraid to really let the music in because it might hurt, it might leave me restless, the way music sometimes does.
I look behind us for a moment. Three girls huddle close, singing along. They are seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. One has her eyes closed, and her face looks so content, so smooth, so blissful. I release Max to the soft grass. He says, “Mama, look at all the stars!” I smile wide and stare at the lady with the red glasses, daring her to complain.
Then I close my eyes and decide to let this be enough, this smallest moment of stars and violin and curving words: I am on my way back to where I started. The words make me want to drive and drive and drive, all the way back to Seattle, all the way back to twenty. So free.
I open my eyes, and there between my friend and I, is my son. His face is so beautiful in the diffused glow of light from the stage, and for just this second he is smiling and flirting with my friend. I look over at Iza, who is falling asleep in Patrick’s arms. Her eyelids flutter like Violet’s do when she’s falling asleep, and I think when was the last time I saw Max’s eyelids flutter like that? And I think of how less lonely I am now than when I was twenty, how much I’ve opened to love, and maybe right now— and maybe forever— love takes the place of all that freedom. That freedom that was so endless that I didn’t know where or how to start carving a life from it. I pick Max up again. He is so heavy, but I wonder if he will remember this, if he will be imprinted by this moment of music and mom, and that thought lifts him up, makes him buoyant.
And there’s that song, oh god, that song, and I feel like I might burst because this moment has to be enough, it is all we have, and so it is enough. I think of that twenty year old me and this almost forty year old me, and how we both have something the other aches for. The warm anchor of my son and the weightlessness of the music both fill my chest and I think thank you, thank you.



  1. What really struck me was your description about how when you meet those inevitably lifelong friends when you've just had your babies, it's true, there are stories that weave in through the years. I had my first baby four years ago and I am still surprised sometimes at what I don't know about my friends. Things I would have known instantly about friends at 20 - like where have you lived, who have you dated, who are your best friends, who are your parents, who are your brothers and sisters? It's kinda amazing.

    Every once in awhile I miss ten years ago. I miss 23. And at 23, I sure was missing my husband and kids and stable home - I just didn't know it yet.

  2. Hi Tamara! Isn't that funny, how the way that friendships unfold can change so much after we have babies?

    Love this sentence: "And at 23, I sure was missing my husband and kids and stable home - I just didn't know it yet."

    Thanks for reading!