I was headed to Isengard. ISENGARD, people.
I mean sure, my terrible memory couldn’t actually recall where in the Lord of the Rings narrative Isengard popped up, but it was epic, I was sure, and I was going to see it. In 30 kilometres or 40 minutes, whichever happened first. Or last. Or whichever–I was slightly confused, jet-lagged, and carsick. The twirling curves were getting very…twirly. The pasta from lunch was sitting very heavily. I sipped my water, The Husband manning the steering wheel beside me, while the rest of our crew hung in the rear of the van. Little Brother had dropped off to sleep, his eyes sealed shut and his head beginning to droop. He dozed through The Kid’s protests, delivered repeatedly and high-pitched in a whine that threatened, along with the curves, to break me.
Then it happened.
There’s the moment before the storm hits, the instant of quiet before an explosion. In this case, TK’s whining ceased so as to accomodate the reversal of digestion that occurred next. Before it happened, I knew it would, and then it did–all over our rental car. Yet another way he takes after me: this stomach sensitivity, all the stress of life showing up through the gut.
And so, he hurled.
I whipped around, somehow omitting the exclamatory “Oh shit” that has accompanied such eruptions (i.e., all of them) in the past. I cupped my hands and placed them in front of him, where a second later another oral waterfall began. The vomit pooled in my palms and fell through my fingers–why did I ever think they would contain it? I dove for plastic bags, wipes, yelling at TH to pull over on the non-shouldered edge of a New Zealand mountainside. He finally found a spot and we did, while LB woke up crying and TK tumbled out of the car, ripping his clothes off. Within a minute I was doused in puke beside my naked American boy overlooking stunning Kiwi scenery, wiping both of us down and wondering why we’d let him eat thirty-seven blocks of cheese at that mountaintop buffet lunch. #badideajeans.
I operate better in crisis mode than real life, the lack of time for subjective interludes and interior monologues clearing the path for forced decision-making, my biological instincts taking over: protect the children. Reach safety. CLEAN UP THE CHEESY BARF. I don’t like crises; I shun and resent them, but they bring out some essential piece of me that dispenses with nonsense and pares down to necessity. I am efficiency instead of emotion.
Luckily (?), most of life is not crisis. Which is part of the trouble, I guess.
Because earlier, we had been standing outside the hotel, our family of four, and TK had been fighting our plan to walk down to the lakefront, preferring instead the familiarity of our room. He had melted down on the steps while other guests passed us. LB was going with the flow, occasionally murmuring, “It’s okay, James,” while TH bounced between the two of them and I turned my back on the whole scene to just breathe. “I can’t do it. I’m so done,” I finally turned and said to him. “This is a nightmare.” More of a nightmare than the subsequent puke and the resulting three-day stench in our rental van. More of a nightmare than scraping regurgitated cheese from upholstery. A nightmare because I was reduced to emotion, rather than efficiency; a nightmare because it is these moments–people witnessing and judging, my patience evaporated, my own issues with shame and insecurity suddenly and forcefully tapped into–that take me to the end of myself and what I can power through, go on autopilot for.
I don’t like reaching the end of myself, the deep pits where the old secrets lie, where the truth is exposed: that there’s not enough of me for this. That I need more.
But this end, it is where so much of parenthood, so much of life, occurs: these moments between my deep regret and falling to my knees. This is where grace meets me: not in the cool efficiency of a seasoned cleaner, but in the dark emotion of a tearful mother, a broken girl, who must grieve the space between what I’d planned for and what is. The space between easy and real. The space between predictable and breathtaking.
It hurts to have my breath taken.
I sent messages later to a few of my spiritual advisers, also called friends, and lamented my reaction not to the puke but to the meltdown: my rigidity and harsh words. “Oh no,” The Sis said. “Turns out you’re human.” And then: “Don’t let this overshadow everything else.” Everything else: which is everything, really–the whispered recounting of his birth and growing up, which he’s been asking about lately; the burrowing into my body and shared moments of laughter and all the other graces that are too big to be wiped away. Another trinity of sisters texted back their own failures from that day, in their typical honesty that manages to move me while also allowing me to be still, where I am, in the grief and beauty.
There are relationships, and moments, where “I can’t do this” is not the end, but the beginning.
On the plane later, where we were so far south I swore I could see the slope of the earth from the window, we headed through the clouds. As a child I always wanted to do that: pierce the pillowy white shapes so far above me, feel the softness of them. As an adult with flights and clouds under my belt, I know that a view from the ground can be deceiving, that the journey through clouds can be fraught, that they conceal within their hazy borders bumps and frights. Turbulence. My children know that for themselves, earlier than I did. But they also know the moment we emerge, coming out the other side, together.