War on Terror
By Francie Arenson Dickman
My daughters leave for school at 7:30 in the morning, which makes for an early start in our house. I’m downstairs doing all of my least favorite activities—unloading the dishes, making lunches—in the dark while my children are upstairs doing the things essential to get ready for school, like doctoring an invisible pimple with makeup from my bathroom or checking the Instagrams posted in the 30 seconds since they last checked. If they have time after this, they brush their teeth and get dressed. These are the days, the ones when they wind up in the kitchen without me having dragged them there, that I feel buoyed. I don’t bank on them anymore, I’ve adjusted expectations but nonetheless, I don’t expect much worse. So I was surprised the other morning, surprised in a bad way, when, with my head in the dishwasher, I heard my phone ding. This particular sound signaled that I was being summoned by my daughter.
A few months ago, each of my daughters assigned to my phone a unique ringtone, or text tone as I believe they are called, so I can identify who is in need without looking up from whatever I’m doing, in this case, putting away dishes. The text tones, like their cries as babies, are easily distinguishable. One is upbeat and silly. It sings “you’ve got a text message” in a goofy voice. The other is a single, repeated call, like a sick wolf or a train about to run you down. It is appropriately entitled Suspense. Any time I hear either’s sound, I hold my breath, since as with their infant cries, they both tend to text me reflexively, and primarily in times of discontent. “Not having fun here, come get me.” “Forgot my lunch.” “Pants ripped.”
So, with trepidation I shoved the wok from last night’s unappreciated stir-fry into the drawer and shuffled to my phone. It was after 7, no one had yet appeared in the kitchen and the lone wolf had just called. This couldn’t be good, I thought, and it wasn’t.
“My hair didn’t crimp right,” the sentence read. Actually, it wasn’t a sentence because it didn’t finish with a period or any other form of recognized punctuation. Instead, at the end of the line were 4 emogis, little smiley faces; the ones she chose had tears coming out of their eyes.
I paused for a moment to soak in the reality that my home had devolved into every other home in America that housed kids in what I like to think of as the terrorist years. The irony didn’t escape me either that my daughter and I were feet away from each other and rather than storming down the stairs to show me the aforementioned hair, as I would have done, or even screaming, she didn’t make a sound. If I hadn’t have checked the text, I wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. I decided that in this case, it was probably better if I didn’t make a sound either.
So against my impulse and better judgment, I typed back, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I used a period instead of an emogi.
I waited. No little dots issued forth to indicate my daughter was responding. I figured maybe she was busy uncrimping her hair or better yet, cutting it off, as I had once done after a perm gone bad. Or maybe, if I was lucky, she was putting on clothes as it was now ten minutes after 7.
My other daughter had already strolled into the kitchen and was now eating cereal. “What’s going on with your sister?” I said. Since we were face to face, I was allowed to use actual words to communicate with her and she managed to use some in return.
My daughters are twins and they are twelve. They were born two weeks after 9/11 and for the first months, years actually, of their lives, I, like the residents of Lower Manhattan lived on a constant state of high alert. My adrenaline worked overtime. I’d gained 60 pounds while pregnant and lost 70 in the four months after. My hair turned grey. I developed Ulcerative Colitis. I’d lay awake at night on edge, waiting for signs of unrest over the baby monitor, which I see now, was the precursor to the iPhone. My father who was born in 1931, a solid 70 years pre-Sept 2001, could never understand the monitor. “When they really need you,” he’d say, “you’ll hear ’em. If you respond every time they whine, they’ll never shut up”.
I also remember my father telling me, “You got two to three rough years ahead of you, then it’ll all be ok.”
“But then,” added my mother, who was sitting next to my father on our couch, “it won’t be.” They each held a baby, having stopped by for one of their 10-minutes-is-all-we-can-tolerate visits.
At the time, I focused on my father’s words. They hung in my head, a beacon of hope as the minutes ticked by, the nights grew quieter and life, as he predicted, got easier. I no longer trembled for hours on Sunday nights before my husband set out for the week. I gained weight. I dyed my hair. My colitis went into remission. As the horrors of late 2001 faded with time I, like all Americans, slipped into a state of complacency, where I lived happily until now.
I stormed upstairs to find my daughter maniacally wetting and brushing, wetting and brushing. All of the hair supplies in her arsenal had been brought forth to the counter. The mirror, along with her sweatshirt, was splattered with water. I have to give her credit, her hair was worth the 4 tearful emojis. The back of it, which I learned had been braided loosely by her sister, hung in a gentle wave whereas the sides, which she’d done in a series of Medusa like braids, had produced a wild, Amazonian look, reflective of her text tone, I thought, as I stood in the war zone that was her bathroom and tried to not laugh.
“I’m not going to school,” she informed me, adding for impact that she also had a pimple in her nose that was making it hard for her to breath.
“I too feel it hard to breath,” I told her, “due to the pimple now sitting on her countertop.”
She rolled her eyes. I grabbed her brush and did the only thing I could think to do. I pulled her hair into a ponytail. Yet unlike years ago when I had sole control over hairdos, she was now armed with the motor skills to yank the hair band out of her head and the verbal skills to inform me that the ponytail was off center. Then she grabbed a headband, and of course her phone, and stumped her way downstairs. I decided to declare a victory as at least in body, she was headed in the right direction, a step closer to the door.
I freely admit these days that I drop my kids at school with the same joy with which I once welcomed the babysitter. Time to regroup. Settle my nerves. I color my hair, I do some work, and reflexively, I do as my daughters do. I call my mother to complain.
Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.
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